As early as 11 a.m., cars had begun lining up in neat rows at Harvey Convention Center in Tyler. 

The occupants, positioned strategically between dozens of fluorescent orange traffic cones and relishing the air conditioning that shielded them from the beating sun, knew they'd be waiting for the better part of five hours.

But they didn't mind, they said -- not hardly at all. Because the reward would prove well worth it.

And so, when 4:30 p.m. rolled around and volunteers, donning masks and gloves, began directing traffic, the families who pulled up to receive their supplies at the seventh annual School is Cool event were only smiling. 

And the coordinators were smiling, too.

"It’s just a really great feeling to be able to give back to the community, to be able to know that this is one less worry that these kids have to start school with," Leanne Robinette, co-chair of the event, said. "They get to start school confident and ready to go, and it’s one less worry for the parents to have to deal with."

Back to school time, she said, can be stressful for anyone -- and especially this year, with all the added safety and health concerns attributed to the COVID-19 crisis.

For this event, too, COVID-19 proved of great concern: The desire to follow social distancing protocols meant organizers and donors were unable to offer haircuts, immunizations and other in-person services that are typically provided to families. 

All donations for the 2020 event instead went toward items that could be stuffed inside the 2,000 book bags donated by UT Tyler and then, for the first time ever, delivered to families via drive-thru. 

"This has been kind of crazy," Robinette admitted, gesturing toward the line of cars that snaked all the way through the parking lot and out to W. Front St., where police officers in patrol cars directed traffic to ensure everyone made it to the right place in line. "But actually, it’s gone a lot smoother than I think we all hoped – the line hasn’t really even stopped moving."

As she spoke, city officials and former council members and volunteers from every place doled out new backpacks chock full of supplies -- everything from spiral notebooks to crayons, markers and pencil pouches.

The materials comprised a kind of "school starter-kit," Robinette explained, of essential items meant to help students feel confident, ready and excited to tackle the new school year.

"I hear stories all the time from moms and dads," she said. "The kids are so excited and so happy. They have a brand new backpack, and they’re leaving smiling."

From its humble beginnings nearly a decade ago, when the event began with just 150 bags, the Tyler community has helped forge an enduring legacy of giving, Robinette said. 

It's something that nearly brought her to tears.

“It’s really been amazing,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite things that we do. Like I said, it’s amazing and great to live in a community that always steps up, that knows that there’s a need and year after year after year steps up to help us meet that need.”

None of it, she reiterated, could be done without the dozens of donors and volunteers who continuously offer their money, time and resources to the event. 

"Our community never fails us."

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Managing Editor

Jessica Dillon, a 2017 graduate of the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University, came to Tyler in the summer of 2020. She has received a number of state awards for her agriculture, breaking news and community service reporting.