With a bright blue Frisbee on his head and a blow-up ball hanging from his lips by its mouthpiece, 9-year-old Emanuel spins around in circles so fast, his new camouflage backpack lifts from his body like a parachute at the moment of landing. Today is his birthday, but it feels more like Christmas morning as he hops from stand to stand at the Mayor's Back to School Fair in Fair Park, where he gathers free school supplies, candy and juice. Emanuel and his family arrived at 1 a.m., early enough to land the first spot in line.
For the third year in a row, his mother, 29-year-old Tyeisha Montgomery, packed up her children and made the short drive to Fair Park to stock up on school supplies. "It helps me a whole lot," says Montgomery, who raises her six children as a single parent in South Dallas. "They get the basics and I take it from there." The 15th annual fair helps low-income families with students in the Dallas Independent School District by doling out pens and notebooks, as well as dental and vision screenings, immunizations, even haircuts.
Mayor Mike Rawlings addressed the crowd as they waited for the doors of the Centennial and Automobile buildings to open. "We've got to have parents that support the child -- parents are the key," he said, repeating, "Parents are the key." He was joined at the event by several council members and Dallas ISD trustees, including school board president Lew Blackburn and interim superintendent Alan King.
"This is what I like about being mayor," Rawlings told Unfair Park before the event, at which thousands were expected once again. "What's amazing is the scale of it." Rawlings called the day a "perfect starting point" to the emphasis on education he began calling for on the campaign trail. "There's just something exciting about seeing this many people caring so much about their kids."
As the sun came up this morning, Montgomery, who allowed Unfair Park to walk through the fair with her family, stood at the front of the line as a clown with big blue pants waddled around, bouncing to the music and twisting dog and sword balloons for the kids. Montgomery's best friend, Stephanie Lacy, and her four children came as well, bringing the group's total to 12. The women packed sandwiches, bananas, apples and oranges to keep everyone energized during the overnight wait.
As the group waited, Rowdy, the Dallas Cowboys' mascot, fist pumped and high-fived fair-goers, while another clown pulled a ball from a little boy's ear, and a baby-faced teen on stilts made the rounds, daring people to give him a nearly unreachable high-five. Exhaustion was an afterthought as a group of about 50 children gathered in an open area near the stage, dancing all morning until it was time to go inside for supplies.
"Let's go, guys," Rawlings said, ushering Montgomery and her family into the fair just after 8.
While walking among the sea of stands, Montgomery gathered information about tutoring services and nutrition before heading into the area where volunteers gave away packages with binders, pens, glue sticks and other supplies, one per child. A stop at the 97.9-The Beat's stand landed Montgomery a quick on-air interview. "Supermom in the house!!" the DJ yells into the mic.
Her kids got drawstring backpacks from the radio station, then moved on, gathering all the goodies they could get their hands on. Montgomery had to stop every few paces so her crew could catch up without someone getting lost.
Walking among the growing crowd in the open space of the Automobile building, Montgomery told Unfair Park the advice she gives her children regarding education: "You cannot not go to school," she said, adding that respect for authority is "No. 1."
"I'm just not raising kids that don't have an education," she said, leading by example. (She says she's currently taking online college classes.)
Her son Emanuel pumped his fists in the air as a volunteer filled up a big brown box with 10 supply packages for all the children. Montgomery stopped near the exit, gathering the group once again before they left. What's on the agenda for the rest of her day? "Sleeping." Finally.