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Salvation Army's Back-to-School Bash branches out in Allegheny Valley

| Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Lyric Taylor, 5, of Brackenridge receives a free hair cut from Bella Capelli Academy student Dylan Arnett during the Back-to-School Bash at the Brackenridge Salvation Army on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Kasiah McKnight, 5, of Tarentum enjoys some cotton candy during the Back-to-School Bash at the Brackenridge Salvation Army on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014.

What began as a simple donation of school supplies in Brackenridge has blossomed into a one-stop shop for nearly everything underprivileged students need to return to school.

The Salvation Army's Allegheny Valley chapter held its sixth annual Back-to-School Bash on Saturday at its service and worship center along Brackenridge Avenue. The event brought in about 300 kindergarten through 12th grade students from the surrounding area who, in addition to receiving donated backpacks and school supplies, were given free health care services.

It marked the second consecutive year that students had access to free physicals, haircuts, vision tests and dental screenings at the bash. The students and parents also were given information about the Medicaid Children's Health Insurance Program, personal safety and the Highlands School District's back-to-school items.

Capt. Rickie Armour, who heads the Allegheny Valley chapter, said the Salvation Army spent about $10,000 on this year's bash, the majority of which went toward school supplies.

“There is a definite need for this in the area, and we have to meet that need,” he said. “It's not about giving a handout, though. It's about giving them a hand up and giving them access to the services necessary for the kids' success and well-being.”

The Salvation Army first started the Back-to-School Bash in 2009 as a way to provide underprivileged students with enough supplies to last through the school year. Since that time, it partnered with groups like UnitedHealthcare, Cornerstone Care and Mobile Dentists to offer more comprehensive assistance for the students' back-to-school needs.

The bash is open to all students in need from the Allegheny Valley chapter's service area, which includes the Fox Chapel Area, New Kensington-Arnold and Highlands school districts.

Ameria Simmons, 6, of New Kensington said the supplies and services are easing her transition to H.D. Berkey Elementary School in Arnold.

“I'm nervous about first grade, but it's good to have this stuff,” she said, waiting in line for her dental screening. “Plus, you get to see all your friends.”

The younger children who gravitated toward the bash's moon bounce in the service center's parking lot were also exposed to booths dedicated to their safety and nutrition.

Brian Sackett, owner of the CS Kim Karate studio in Buffalo Township, was on hand to teach students how to respond to threats posed by adult strangers. Giant Eagle had registered dieticians passing out trail mix and showing the kids healthy alternatives for snacks, and the Bella Capelli Beauty Academy in Monroeville had stylists giving out free haircuts.

Desiree Powell, an education leader at the academy, said the group cut more than 60 students' hair.

“A lot of the kids' parents were saying this is the only time all year that they get a hair cut,” she said. “I know a lot of the kids really look forward to this day for the school supplies, as well.”

This year, UnitedHealthcare took on the costs of the backpacks that carry the Salvation Army's school supplies. Denise Puskaric, a quality director for the health care provider, said the organization wanted to assume a larger role this year after witnessing the bash's benefits at last year's event, which marked the first of UnitedHealthcare's partnership with the Salvation Army.

“This event is a big help to those who need it, and we wanted to continue giving back,” she said. “A lot of people don't have the money for even basic supplies and services that people need, so we wanted to help out.”

Nikia Steele of Brackenridge, who took her daughter Jaiden to the bash, said the event helps the parents as much as the students.

“It's great for the kids because they get to see their friends and know they'll be alright at school, but it also takes a huge burden off the parents,” Steele said. “Especially the single moms, and there are a lot of them around here.

“It's a great thing for everybody. Every child deserves an equal opportunity in the classroom, and this really helps out.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or

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