Following the first week of in-person learning, hundreds of families enjoyed a back-to-school festival at the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens (VBGC) in Astoria, marking the start of a new school year.
With the support of over a dozen community partners, the all-day celebration included school supply giveaways, local food vendors and outdoor activities for hundreds of students in Queens.
With last year’s back-to-school festival cancelled due to the pandemic, club CEO Costa Constantinides said it was extra special to help students feel normal again in a kid-friendly atmosphere.
With six sites serving over 4,000 area youth, the club is the largest youth services provider in western Queens.
“Today is a celebration,” Constantinides said. “We understand the gravity of the responsibility we have to provide them with an after-school experience and help them get back to normal.”
As a father of a son who hasn’t seen the classroom in over 18 months, Constantinides stressed the importance of the educational resources available at the club, as well as helping families through tough times.
“I know so many children in New York City who had a very similar situation,” he said. “From dealing with the angst of COVID, a family member losing their job or losing a family member, we hope to help them through the tension of this pandemic and help them feel like a kid again.”
School supplies were available to families through donations from the offices of Borough President Donovan Richards and State Senator Mike Gianaris, corporate sponsors and volunteer drives. Both Richards and Gianaris made appearances at the all-day event.
The hot and sunny day also called for Constantinides to sit in the dunk tank, making a splash for a good cause.
Elsbeth Grant, the club’s Chief Advancement Officer, would also be a dunk tank victim, saying it was wonderful to have kids back at the club playing again.
“It feels so great to have kids back at the club safely,” said Grant. “We want going back to school to be an exciting experience. I’m sure it can be scary with everything going on, we just want to support our community by making it fun and helping them prepare to go back to the classroom.”
Community partners joining the festival included Chip Cookies, San Antonio’s Wood Fired Pizza, Ample Hill Creamery and STEM learning from the BioBus. A vaccine pop-up station was also made available by the state Department of Health.
Volunteer Ashley Dean helped organize a school supply drive with her local running group, and chose the club to be the recipients of the backpacks and notebooks she collected over a month-long period.
“School is expensive for a lot of families,” said Dean. “People have multiple children so it’s nice to be able to ease a burden. Setting the kids up to succeed is important, especially right now.”