President Jose Muñoz of City Life Community Outreach and Bishop Eric Rodriguez of The City Life of Refuge Church. Photo by Janna McPartland.

Back-to-school event offers families relief from rising costs

Jose Muñoz had little time to spare as he darted between unloading boxes, setting up tents and keeping tabs on the growing line of people holding their kids and shopping carts, patiently waiting for the event to start.

“We expect 250 to 300 people,” Munoz said.

The City of Refuge Church and City Life Community Outreach held its 9th Annual Back-to-School Drive on Saturday outside the church’s headquarters at 137th St. in Port Morris. A station was set up for a food drive and backpack giveaway. 

Essen Health Care, which provided bags of food to give away, was one of a dozen partners for the event. Other event sponsors in the healthcare and technology industries lined the sidewalk to provide information about their services. 

The church runs a food pantry every first and third Saturday of the month. Additional events throughout the year include health screenings, coat drives, a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway and a December toy drive.

“This is for the kids,” said Munoz. As the president of City Life Community Outreach, he works with local partners to donate items that Bronx children need the most.

American families with K-12 children plan to spend an average of $890.07 on back-to-school shopping in 2023, breaking last year’s record of $864.35, according to a National Retail Federation survey. 

Consumers reported that school supply lists are longer and more expensive every year. Technology items like computers and tablets add significantly to school shopping bills. The total spending on school-related items this year, the retail federation reported, is expected to climb to a new high of $41.5 billion.  


Bishop Sol Rodriguez of The City of Refuge Church was one of the organizers for the back-to-school drive. She said immigrant families and single-parent households are two large demographics in the community who may struggle to afford to go back-to-school shopping.

“They are the ones in need,” Rodriguez said.

The median household income of Community District 1, encompassing Mott Haven, Melrose and Port Morris, in 2021 was $32,010, about 56% less than the citywide median household income of $72,150. 

“The prices are high. It’s not like back in the day,” said Laura Reyes, a retired certified nursing assistant in the South Bronx. “After COVID, that was it. Everything just started going sky-rocket.”

The cost of school supplies gets harder by the year to keep up with. Backpack prices were 10.5% higher in June, 2023 than they were in June, 2019.

Reyes attends the church’s events throughout the year to listen to Bishops Eric and Sol Rodriguez preach to the community. She also witnesses local children come together to socialize and play.

“Sometimes they close off the streets and they have stuff that the kids can play on,” Reyes said.

While it can be challenging to recruit partners and raise money for drives, Munoz said that community organizing is his mission from God: “He gave to us. I give to the community.”

South Bronx resident Yerardina Vargas stood at the end of the line with her two daughters, Annabelly, 5, and Annabell, 2, after reading a flier posted in the neighborhood for the back-to-school drive. While the girls were enjoying the start to their school year, they still didn’t have backpacks.

Vargas asked Annabelly, who just began kindergarten at the Success Academy Charter School in the Bronx, what color backpack she wanted. 

By the time the line for the backpack giveaway began to move, Annabelly had made her choice: purple. 

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