Back-to-school season looks different this year for the children and families of Washington state.
While some parents are putting together at-home desks, others are adjusting to new school safety protocols amid COVID-19. But the change did not deter Gambian Talents Promotion (GTP) from hosting their annual back-to-school picnic. Whether children are sitting in desks in the classroom or in front of the computer at home, Pa Ousman Joof, executive coordinator of GTP, knows that they still need backpacks and school supplies to succeed this year.
GTP, a nonprofit that connects Gambians in Washington with local resources and the wider community, has organized the event the last three years. The back-to-school picnic brings together members of the Gambian community in the Puget Sound region. It’s an opportunity for the children — many of whom have never lived in Gambia — to honor and celebrate their Gambian history and culture. This year was no exception.
Just as in years past, the GTP brought trays of freshly prepared Gambian food to share with the families. But they also brought pizza, pasta, and hot dogs and encouraged children to enjoy both. While the children would typically be asked trivia questions about Gambian history and language between bites, the COVID pandemic prompted the GTP to take a different approach, converting the event to a drive-thru to ensure the safety of their members.
It took a lot of thinking and planning on the front end, Joof said. A Google form was sent around in advance of the back-to-school event so that they would have an accurate count of how much food to order and backpacks to fill. They were clear in their communications with attendees, stating that they would provide sanitizer, masks, and gloves and enforce social distancing. Instead of having family members prepare food at home, professional restaurants catered and the volunteers who served the food wore masks and gloves. They told families that nobody was expected to stay beyond 10 minutes. Joof said the work was worth it and families felt comfortable showing up as a result.
For the first time since the pandemic hit, “the community got to meet,” he said. “Friends got to see each other.”
Months earlier, Joof said members of the community adapted their Ramadan meal from a sit-down dinner to a grab-and-go meal. He said their success in making that change instilled confidence that GTP could host the back-to-school event while keeping members of their community healthy.
“It inspired us to say, ‘If we can do that, we can equally do this,’” he said.
While the board games stayed in their boxes and the volleyball net stayed down this year, they did add a new component: Grandma Appreciation Day. Joof said grandmothers bond the Gambian community in Washington together, but added that they often experience isolation as a result of language and transportation barriers. Last year, the GTP created a WhatsApp forum so that the grandmothers could easily share information and resources and pray for the community together. At this year’s event, the GTP showed their gratitude to the now-named Seattle Gambian Grandma’s Association by gifting each grandmother $30 in cash, sanitizing wipes, and a natural healing ointment. He said that the GTP will continue to honor the independent association of more than 100 grandmothers at the back-to-school event in the years to come.
But the event also allowed the GTP to live out another component of their mission: Bridging the gap between the Gambian community and the wider community. Joof said a family from another African country who was struggling financially heard about the event and came to receive food and supplies.
“Not only did we serve our community, but we were able to share with the other communities here,” he said. “The fact that we can fertilize from our brothers and sisters from a different country is definitely something that we are proud of.”
The back-to-school event is just one way that the GTP has supported the Gambian community through the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve distributed $70,000 in the community over the past six months to alleviate the cost of medical and utility bills. Recently, they gave gift cards to college students to go towards the purchase of groceries during the students’ first few weeks of class.
“Our community is trusting us a lot more,” Joof said. “And we’ve learned along the way the real issues affecting us.”
Currently, GTP is an all-volunteer organization, but their goal is to hire some full-time staff members and acquire an office space to serve as a hub for the community. People want to volunteer, Joof said, but many members of their community work two to three jobs making volunteering their time a challenge. Joof said they envision a community center where people can get interpretation and translation support with filling out forms, making doctor’s appointments, and finding legal assistance. They hope to have a daycare and programs for children to learn about their Gambian heritage. But he stressed that none of that can happen without financial resources.
As for other organizations working to safely host their annual events, Joof hopes the Gambian back-to-school event can serve as a model. It’s something that is doable, he said. You just have to be willing to adapt and challenge yourself.
The mission of Gambian Talents Promotion (GTP) is to promote Gambian culture in the state of Washington, inform and educate Gambians, and bridge the gap between the community and wider society to promote and encourage tolerance and peaceful co-existence. They have been a Washington Nonprofits member since 2020.