COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Holding the backpacks they just got from the Three Rivers Area Faith Community booth, 7-year-old Johnnie Redmond (left) and 5-year-old Charleigh Redmond (right) of Three Rivers enjoy the annual Back-To-School Celebration at The Huss Project Saturday. Around 300 backpacks were available to be given out at the festival free of charge, filled with school supplies for the new school year.COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - 4-year-old Aria Elore of Three Rivers plays a ring toss game held at the Early Head Start booth at the annual Back-To-School Festival at The Huss Project Saturday. Around a dozen organizations were on hand with games and activities for the kids, as well as information about their services for the adults in attendance.

Huss Project gets kids ready to go back to school

THREE RIVERS — With the back-to-school season rapidly approaching, a local nonprofit in Three Rivers helped local kids and their families get ready with a festival this past weekend.

The Huss Project held its annual Back To School Festival Saturday, featuring games, activities, food vendors and live music, as well as the Three Rivers Area Faith Community (TRAFC) offering free backpacks for kids and families that signed up at the event.

Festival goers had to dodge a few raindrops here and there Saturday morning, but it didn’t stop the dozens that showed up throughout the morning for the games, fun, and backpacks.

“Instead of just being an information fair, this is more fun and more interactive,” Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma, executive director of *culture is not optional, which runs The Huss Project, said.

The festival also had about a dozen different local organizations on hand to give parents information about their services. Those included the Early Head Start Childcare Partnership Program, the Three Rivers Public Library, Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan, the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency, the Great Start Collaborative, the Community Action Head Start Carol Shippy Center, Covered Bridge Healthcare, the Animal Rescue Fund, Immaculate Conception School, the St. Joseph County Literacy Council and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library through *culture is not optional.

“There are a lot of different organizations here that provide a pretty broad range of services for neighbors in the community,” Vander Giessen-Reitsma said. “I think it’s great for a lot of reasons. At the end of the day, connecting neighbors to resources is the main reason, but it’s great for those of us who are running some of these organizations to realize that there are other people doing other kinds of work that is moving in the same direction and the same spirit, so I think that’s encouraging too.”

One of the bigger aspects of the festival was the free backpacks provided by TRAFC. There were around 300 backpacks available to hand out, with many of them gone by the end of the morning. Backpacks were bought from Walmart and another surplus store, while supplies included paper, pencils, pens, crayons, scissors and other items based on lists from the local school district.

Vander Giessen-Reitsma said this aspect of the festival is an important one.

“That’s something the churches have spearheaded for some time. That’s what brings people out, that they’re looking for school supplies for their kids, which is always great,” Vander Giessen-Reitsma said. “This year, we were able to spend a little bit more on the backpacks and get a slightly higher-quality backpack than we have sometimes been able to do. I hope that we’re meeting a need. From conversations we’ve had from parents online, it seems like there is a need.”

Tony Bennett, the pastor of New Jerusalem Baptist Church and president of TRAFC, said they hadn’t been able to do the backpacks “in a while” due to COVID-19 prior to 2021, and that they were glad to help out the community.

“We love doing it for the kids so they can get a good start to the school year,” Bennett said. “It’s more about community, because you reach out to your community, your community will reach back. I believe that we should be a part of the community and do what we need to do for them.”

Overall, Vander Giessen-Reitsma said he hopes the feeling of community was the main take away from the event.

“I hope that we all leave with a feeling of mutual reciprocity, that we all feel connected to one another as neighbors in the community. It’s not some folks serving other folks, it’s we’re all serving one another in different ways and growing our imaginations in different ways together, and that’s how community works.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or

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