Seven-year-old Da'Juan Brown peered into his brand-new black-and-red backpack Saturday and surveyed the contents:
A spiral-bound notebook. A pack of loose-leaf paper. Pens, pencils and an eraser.
The soon-to-be second-grader from West Baltimore said he can't wait to use the supplies at his new school, Southwest Baltimore Charter School.
"I'm happy about going back to school," said Da'Juan. His favorite part of school? "Learning."
Da'Juan received one of 2,500 backpacks that were stuffed with school supplies by volunteers and distributed at Mondawmin Mall — one of a number of back-to-school events leading to the Aug. 31 start of classes in city schools.
At nearby Druid Hill Park, the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council and a group of local elected officials also gave out school supplies. And at Kingdom Life Church in the Carroll-South Hilton neighborhood, a Have Life Community Event included giveaways of groceries and 1,000 backpacks filled with school supplies.
Da'Juan's grandmother said she got a flier for the giveaway at Mondawmin Mall and he pestered her to go. "He was like, 'I want to go. I want to go,'" said Jacqueline Cameron. "He's so excited."
Kevin Shird, organizer of the event — the Unify Baltimore Back-to-School Rally — said he hoped to ease the worries of children going back to school.
He grew up poor in West Baltimore and knows the uneasy feeling of going to the first day of school without the right supplies.
"For me, going back was a struggle," Shird said, adding that poor families struggling to pay rent and keep food on the table can't always find the money for binders and crayons. "The budget just doesn't call for it. These are real, everyday things they have to deal with."
Shird said he turned his life around to become a writer and youth advocate after serving 12 years in prison on drug charges. He wants to make sure children have a good experience in school and don't follow the path he did. He said he's forming an organization called Educate One to support low-income, college-bound children.
For the Mondawmin event, Shird enlisted the help of several nonprofits, colleges and businesses for the school supplies and a small resource fair. Supporters included Morgan State University, Bon Secours Health System, Habitat for Humanity and State Farm insurance. Author Wes Moore co-sponsored the event and brought several young men from his Bridge EdU mentoring program for college freshmen.
Moore said he hopes children know that adults care about them and want them to succeed. "We have a whole lot to be hopeful for in the city and a whole lot to fight for — and a lot of them are here in this room," he said.
Shird spent several months organizing the Mondawmin event.
"After the riots, I just felt like there's a lot of organizations doing a lot of stuff, but we're not working together," he said.
On April 27, riots, looting and arson erupted in Baltimore following the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old who suffered a spinal injury while in police custody. Six police officers have been charged in connection with his death; all have pleaded not guilty.
The area around Mondawmin Mall was where some of the rioting began, but a different scene unfolded Saturday, with aspiring rappers entertaining the crowd as volunteers manned two tables piled high with the backpacks.
Eight-year-old Kaylen Totes of Windsor Mill drew attention singing and dancing under his stage name, "Kay Rackz."
"All y'all kids are the future!" Kaylen said to the crowd, before inviting other children to join him in dancing to the hit song, "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)."
Later, 15-year-old Dunbar High student and aspiring rapper Keon Myers — known as "Lil Key" — had the crowd joining a call-and-response. "They love to hate!" he called out, then turned the microphone to the audience, who responded with: "They hate the love!"
Volunteer Robin Boston of Reservoir Hill, a member of the Parents and Community Advisory Board, watched the performances and said she was pleased to help children with the backpacks and supplies that they can't do without.
"It's good," she said. "School supplies are expected."