COLUMBIA - School bags, crayons, toothbrushes and lunch boxes are heaped in storage tubs along with bottles of salad dressing, ketchup and mustard at Mama Bessie's Dry Cleaners. The school supplies will go to children who went back to school last week. The sauces will be used to make spaghetti, salads, fried chicken, hot dogs and hamburgers for all those who attend the back-to-school party Aug. 30 in Douglass Park.
Margaret ‘Marie' Hickem-Smith, 51, who owns the dry cleaning business and is organizing the event, said the event is open to all.
"It's to help kids and community. It's not pick and choose, who's rich, who's poor, it's for everybody, and it pulls the people and community together too," Hickem-Smith said. "Each event I had was a whole different group of people."
The community sure knows Mama Bessie's.
Walls of her shop are scribbled with names and phone numbers of customers from across Columbia and outside. Photographs of family and friends plaster the walls, an idea Hickem-Smith got from her former workplace in Las Vegas, to keep customers busy while they wait for their clothes. Photographs of MU's former basketball coach Norm Stewart and Hickem-Smith's friends crowd Mama Bessie's "wall of fame."
Donations have trickled in as word spread through fliers and customers. One customer, Denise Kendall, said, "I donated because I wanted to help needy children and Margaret is a sweet person."
Some customers who live as far away as Fayette and drive to Columbia to pick up their dry cleaning at Mama Bessie's have given money for the party.
Hickem-Smith has raised around $500 but needs donations to put pork steaks on the menu. Her 10 sisters and brothers and their families will help out with the cooking and serving. The event will include a dance contest and a fashion show for children, where the best dresser will get $50 in cash and a $50 dry cleaning voucher. The judges will include Mary Still, 25th District State Representative candidate, Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller and Stephen Webber, the presumptive 23rd District State Representative.
"I need scissors, some crayons, markers and a 100-subject notebook," said nine-year-old Kayla Hall during her after-school hours at J.W. ‘Blind' Boone Center. She also needs two glue sticks to make a panda cutout for her class. Kayla might not get all the things in her wish list at the party but she will get some of themfor free.
"I don't have enough supplies," said Kayla, who also has three sisters and three brothers.
Activities also include free haircuts for 10 boys and hair braiding for four girls by appointment later in the weekend. Malijahjuan Smith, 12, has some money for new shoes but will go to the party to save up for a movie and a visit to the mall.
"Why I will go there? Because I am back to school," he said. "But there might be stuff I might want to do ... isn't it the place where they will give free haircut to boys?" Malijahjuan said, twisting his short braids at the center.
Hickem-Smith said she is most excited about the idea of giving cash awards to students who recently got their GED. "Whoever gets their GED (will get a reward) ... black, white, green, orange, purple, yellow ... it's their achievement," Hickem-Smith said.
Local artists will donate paintings of Barack Obama, Jesus and Martin Luther King to be auctioned. Half of the proceeds will go to the artists and the other half for school lunch funds, Hickem-Smith said.
"It's a chance to give back to the community," said Stephanie, Hickem-Smith's daughter who helps her out with her business besides working at a MU fraternity house.
Eleven-year-old Qayshanta Black, one of 11 children in her family, said she wants to go to the party as well. It might not have the flash drive that she needs for school but she can find something else. "I haven't been there before ... and I need supplies," Qayshanta said.