Giving back to their community: This Fort Wayne nonprofit is providing families with school supplies

The idea started when Rosemary Boxley of Fort Wayne met a mother stocking up on pens and paper at a South side supermarket.

The mother was preparing to homeschool her children this fall rather than send them back to class amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and she was saying that she had to keep going back to the store to get more supplies her children needed.

While Boxley’s own children are grown, she feels sorry for students, parents, and educators having to deal with the uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic is causing for schools. Many families she knows are planning to homeschool their children this fall to avoid the threat of the virus.

“That’s something I’ve heard a lot,” Boxley says. “Parents don’t want to deal with it.”

So as Founder Sistarz & Sistarz Nonprofit Organization, Boxley came up with a plan to help families during the pandemic: Host a free backpack giveaway, complete with kids' meals, COVID-19 supplies, and back-to-school basics, like pens, paper, and rulers. Students can use these supplies whether they return to the classrooms or not, she points out.

Since September 2019, Sistarz & Sistarz Nonprofit Organization has been doing free monthly meals in the Fort Wayne community as part of their mission to meet their neighbor’s basic needs. When COVID-19 began, they started ramping up their efforts and joining forces with other Southeast-area nonprofits, including the Human Agriculture Co-operative and Black Women of Excellence, to serve the city's populations most vulnerable to the virus and food shortages.

Each month, the nonprofits have developed themes for their Curbside Giveaways at 1313 Oxford St., like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day celebrations. So it was only fitting that as August approaches, the theme for July would be: For the Kids, A Curbside Back-to-School Giveaway.

Sistarz & Sistarz members and friends helped out with the Back-to-School Giveaway.Along with school supplies, each backpack came with a COVID-19 kit complete with gloves, hand sanitizers, and masks to help families stay safe this fall no matter what their plans entail.

While Sistarz & Sistarz has about 10 members regularly, Anjelica Soto was one of the few able to help Boxley distribute the backpacks on a Friday afternoon from noon to 3 p.m. Many of their members work fulltime.

Soto says she’s seen a steady stream of parents and kids coming through to get free supplies and meals of hot dogs, chips, snacks, and drinks.

“It’s been nonstop,” she says. “We packed more than 100 backpacks, and we’ve made 200 meals.”

Sistarz & Sistarz gave away about 100 backpacks.

She notes that one special item students will find in their new backpacks is books written by African American authors.

Having grown up on the South side of Fort Wayne herself in a Hispanic family, Soto says she’s always believed in the South side of town and the power of giving back to the community that raised her.

“It’s sad that people have it in their minds that you shouldn’t go to the South side of Fort Wayne,” she says. “It’s a great community here; people are so friendly.”

Being a bilingual speaker of Spanish and English, one reason she enjoys volunteering with Sistarz & Sistarz is so she can translate what they’re doing to the local Spanish community and help their efforts reach a more diverse audience.

Volunteers pack hot meals for guests to pick up at 1313 Oxford St.

While she's only been working with Sistarz & Sistarz since April, Soto has been giving back to Fort Wayne in various ways before that, like running the local Spanish radio station for five years and hosting Hispanic-themed festivals downtown. Now that her children are grown, she’s been looking for volunteer opportunities that she believes in, and Boxley's organization was the perfect fit.

“I really like who she is and what she’s doing,” Soto says, noting that Boxley often supports Sistarz & Sistarz’s work out of her own pocket.

Volunteers help with the giveaways at 1313 Oxford St.

To keep Sistarz & Sistarz's progress going during the pandemic, Soto is using her own platform to advance their mission, too.

As one of the three co-founders of the Hop Spot Crew lowriders community and events in Fort Wayne, she’s hosting a large, regionally attended Car Show & Festival fundraiser on August 1 at the Plex. The Hop Spot Crew is partnering with DaMarcus Beasley Foundation's "Kick for a Cause" event.

While the event is primarily aimed at raising funds for the DaMarcus Beasley Foundation’s “Kick for a Cause” to support youth scholarships and futsal courts in Fort Wayne parks, Sistarz & Sistarz will be selling food at the event, as well, to raise money for future giveaways.

Despite the threat of COVID-19, Soto expects to see large crowds at the event, featuring tricked out cars and bikes from around the region, especially since similar events have been canceled in other cities. Growing up, her family was into classic cars and low riders, but she didn’t realize how big of a lowrider community Northeast Indiana has until she started hosting events herself.

She and two friends planned their first lowrider event as a small get together at Swinny Park about three years ago to show off their cars. And as word spread, their attendance grew.

“We ended up having 120 cars the first year,” Soto says.

Last year, they moved the event to Franke Park for more space, and about 350 people came out. They even ran out of food.

“Lowrider culture is so big,” Soto says. “We had people from Kentucky, Iowa, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and all over Indiana. Now, I have over 5,000 friends on Facebook, and they're from car clubs and bike clubs everywhere.”

The Hop Spot Crew hosts annual car shows and events for Northeast Indiana's lowrider community.

Soto says that while Hop Spot Crew originally started out as a lowrider show exclusively, it’s now expanded into a fundraiser showcasing vehicles of all kinds, including classic cars, model cars, and bikes. This year, they are planning for an even bigger event at the Plex, which has 900 parking spots and can accommodate 500 visitors. But as Director of Operations for Office One Cleaning as her fulltime job, Soto feels prepared to handle the crowds from a safety perspective.

“Our cleaning crew is trained in the COVID process, so we will be going in with medical-grade chemicals we use to spray the facilities, shutting down the restrooms every hour to clean them, and keeping the tables and chairs distant,” she says.

Cars and bikes of all types are welcome at the 2020 Hop Spot Crew's Annual Car Show & Festival.

In addition to activities like a Jalapeno Eating Contest and a Paleta (Mexican ice cream) Walk, the event will feature a new Face Mask Decorating Contest this year where contestants compete for a chance to win $100.

“We’re trying to get people to wear masks and to not think of it as a punishment,” Soto says. “My lowrider will have a face mask around the front that says, ‘Be safe. Cover your face.’”

In addition to strengthening Fort Wayne’s lowrider scene, she hopes the event provides more regional exposure for Boxley and Sistarz & Sistarz, who are often doing hard work behind the scenes to uplift Fort Wayne’s community on a regular basis.

As Soto works at the Back-to-School Giveaway in July, her brother’s little girl stops in to help, and she offers her some advice.

“I said, ‘Now remember, it’s important that because you’re so blessed and so lucky that you give back to other people,’” Soto says. “My parents raised us like that, and that’s why we like to give back to the community.”

Hop Spot’s Annual Car Show & Festival

Enjoy a full day of soccer, cars, food, family, fun, music, a beer garden, and more at the Plex on August 1. Visit Hop Spot Crew’s Facebook page for details.

Attend Sistarz & Sistarz next Giveaway in September

On the weekend of Sept. 5, Sistarz & Sistarz will be partnering with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to raise awareness and funds. Follow their Facebook page for details.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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