For Alicia Ruiz, a 31-year-old stay-at-home mom, holding off on a few back-to-school purchases for her three children these last few weeks was a no-brainer.

“With the economic crisis, it’s difficult to buy for everyone,” she said at Garfield Square Saturday morning, as she waited in line with her children to receive one of 800 free backpacks, loaded with notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers, paper, and calculators.

The giveaway at 26th and Harrison Streets was organized by three area nonprofits—the Good Samaritan Family Resource Center, the Central American Resource Center, and the Mission Community Council—to put families in touch with the myriad neighborhood services available to help their kids both in and out of the classroom.

“This event for us is really about promoting school readiness,” said Aura Aparicio, director of education and community building at Good Samaritan.

In addition to the backpacks, several area nonprofits—826 Valencia, Arriba Juntos, the Mission Neighborhood Health Center, and others—hosted booths to reach out to the roughly 600 families who attended.

The organizers also paid for hamburgers, tortilla chips and a pink bouncy castle that sat idly next to the park’s far more popular jungle gym.

Families, many with baby strollers, clustered on the grass, speaking Spanish, Chinese, Thai, and very little English.

Standing in the shade to get out of the intense midday sun, Aparicio said she was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of people who showed up. Her organization, she explained, primarily serves Latino families and doesn’t do much outreach to other immigrant populations.

Wendy Long, a 15-year-old student at Lowell High School whose parents are from China, said she heard about the event through her seven-year-old brother’s elementary school in Portrero Hill.

As she translated the questions and answers for her mother, Long sheepishly sported her unadorned black backpack. The ones given out to the younger kids were more colorful, some printed with cartoon characters like Dora the Explorer.

“It’s nice,” she said, not wanting to sound unappreciative.

Marisol Gonzalez, 17, also heard about the event through her younger brother. But she wasn’t as surprised as Aparicio about the turnout. Gonzalez grew up in the Mission; her parents moved to the neighborhood more than 20 years ago from Zacatecas, Mexico. For her, diversity is an everyday part of living in a community that is often defined by its Latino culture, but has significant immigrant populations from other parts of the world.

“The people here reflected the people of the Mission,” she said, sitting on the grass with her mom away from the crowded food line, eating barbeque.

While the nonprofits organized the event, three other groups donated the 800 backpacks. One hundred fifty came from First 5 California, an organization that promotes health and education initiatives for infants and preschool-age children. Four hundred came from the Public Defender’s Bayview Mobilization for Adolescent Growth in our Communities Program, and the remainder from Pacific Gas & Electric.

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Noah Buhayar is print and multimedia student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He reports primarily on business topics. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, CBS’s business site and MarketWatch. Before coming to the Bay Area, he taught a semester of high school Spanish in Hawaii, spent a year in southern Chile on a Fulbright grant, and interned with the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer’s online division.

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