TUSCUMBIA — Deshler Middle School's gymnasium was transformed Tuesday into a back-to-school center where families collected supplies, vouchers and fresh produce.

It was the first-ever school preparedness expo for the district. Jer'Mah Madden, an upcoming fourth-grader at R.E. Thompson Intermediate School, excitedly moved from booth to booth, likening it to trick-or-treating.

"I love all the stuff I got, and this is a lot better than going to the store and shopping," he said as he pulled various items out of his plastic bag only to find, to his surprise, not one but two boxes of crayons. "This is absolutely the best day."

For his mom, the day meant the unfolding of a blessing.

"I have three kids, a seventh- and second-grader, too," Sheranda Madden said. "I'm getting all these supplies for free in this one-stop shop, and I'm just so appreciative."

Guidance Counselor Pam Lenz heard of a similar program during a conference she attended last year.

"This man from Texas was talking about how helpful this was in his community, and I was writing down everything he said because I just knew we could do this for our community," Lenz said. "We had (administrators) buy in right away, and it grew from doing it for our school to the whole district."

All together about 800 bags of school supplies were prepared in conjunction with the lists from each school and grade. Numerous teachers and other employees volunteered their time.

Lenz said the expo not only helped families by sparing them the cost of supplies, but businesses also offered vouchers for services such as haircuts and free dental supplies.

In addition, families had their choice of fresh produce, and lunch was available on site.

Superintendent Darryl Aikerson said the expo was designed to "meet as many needs as possible."

"Free public education isn't as free as they say it is," Aikerson said. "Our hope is that this makes it a whole lot easier on our families."

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