The Richmond Police Activities League gymnasium rocked with hundreds of kids and parents Tuesday. For the parents, it was the free backpacks full of school supplies. For the kids, the big draw was getting autographs and taking pictures with local Major League stars.
“To see these guys up close, it’s special for these kids,” said Richard Cheney, a Richmond resident, while his 4-year-old son Noah shouldered a hefty backpack. “The kids in Richmond need this kind of thing.”
Oakland A’s all-star starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez and reliever Fautino De Los Santos wowed the kids and parents at “Backpacks 4 Their Future,” which relied on a range of organizations and private donors to distribute 500 backpacks filled with binders, pencils, rulers, scissors and other school supplies to Richmond schoolkids.
More than a dozen local police were also on hand to interact with the crowd at the Police Activities League gym, where kids played in jump houses and listened to booming music before the big leaguers arrived.
When Gonzalez and De Los Santos arrived wearing green A’s jerseys, the already buzzing gymnasium ramped up to a near-fever pitch. Smiling kids bounded toward the table where the players sat to sign and pose for pictures and kids and parents formed a line hundreds of feet long to get autographs, mug for pictures and chat with the affable young players.
Parents and uniformed police officers also posed with the Oakland ballplayers. The Florida-born Gonzalez was gregarious and humorous with kids, parents and reporters. De Los Santos, a 25-year-old from the Dominican Republic, speaks limited English, but chatted up the many Spanish-speaking children and parents.
“This is awesome, just awesome,” said Gonzalez, a 25-year-old lefthander who made his first American League All-Star team this season, as he signed autographs for a trio of youngsters wearing A’s caps. “This is my first time in Richmond, and to see these kids light up … I am more than happy to stay and sign every autograph and pose for every picture.”
The event was made possible by several partners, led by Ellen Ellery, a KTVU News executive, who served as the chief organizer and fundraiser. Donations were also made by utilities company PG&E, the Oakland A’s franchise, the Richmond PAL and the Richmond police officers’ and managers’ unions.
This was the back0to-school backpack event’s fifth year, but the first year that it was held at the Richmond PAL gym, Ellery said.
Ellery said she launched the backpack giveaway program 5 years ago with a tax rebate she received, and that it has grown in supporters and beneficiaries ever since. She said the program is intended to benefit kids from families whose finances are tight by making sure they have the necessarily supplies for the coming school year.
“I have a friend who’s a teacher and she says that the most important thing for the kids is to be like everyone else,” Ellery said. “So if they show up to school the first day and they don’t have the tools they need they’re behind from the very first day. This way they know they have a new backpack and they have new supplies and they feel good about themselves.”
As the program has grown, more kids have benefited from the increased supply of backpacks. This year was the largest in terms of materials given away, venue, and total crowd.
Utility company PG&E donated 300 of the backpacks and several volunteers. “This is the first year we’ve been involved in this, but it’s a great event and we’re open to continuing to support this in the future,” said Tamar Sarkissian, a PG&E spokesperson.
After signing and posing for hundreds of fans, Gonzalez gave interviews to local media before hitting the road with De Los Santos and an A’s staff member to go to the ballpark for a 7:05 p.m. game vs. the Baltimore Orioles.
“Waking up this morning it was the first thing that came to mind,” Gonzalez said. “Coming out to Richmond and joining up with these kids that are here … everything worked out perfect today.”