OAKLAND (KPIX 5) Lemond Harris and his nieces dug into free backpacks stocked with school supplies like notebooks, crayons, and pencils. The recent giveaway was part of a National Night Out event hosted in West Oakland.
“Good backpacks can be around $20 to $30 dollars,” said Harris. “And tools and supplies that they need. It’s definitely helpful.”
The backpack giveaway is the brainchild of Ora Knowell. For the last 14 years, Knowell and her co-organizer Alicia Fontenette have stood at the corner of 10th and Center in Oakland giving away free backpacks to neighborhood kids.
Knowell has survived cancer, a foreclosure dispute, and the loss of two children to murder. But the 73-year-old Oakland resident decided long ago to turn that tragedy into a helping hand for others.
“I chose 10th and Center because so many young people were killed right there in that spot,” explained Knowell. “I felt like I needed to do something to comfort all of these kids because there were so many kids suffering.”
It’s part of the West Oakland Lower Bottom Fatherless Children’s Foundation Knowell started in 2002, after losing her second son to murder. 10th and Center was a violent corner in the neighborhood, and many children lost loved ones here.
That first year, she gave away about 50 backpacks. Since then, she says there have been too many to count.
Knowell’s caring does not stop with children. After her sons were murdered, Knowell began making quilts to honor the memory of her sons and other murder victims. Survivors contribute names of those they have lost by writing messages of love directly onto the quilts. Knowell will often include photos of those who have passed in her quilt designs.
“If they don’t have a voice, I want to be their voice,” explained Knowell. “I want to speak for them and let them know that somebody cares.”
Longtime friend and neighbor Fontenette sees Knowell as an inspiration.
“She’s just uplifting,” said Fontenette. “I can tell her anything and she is going to make sure it’s okay.”
For 6-year-old Dawson, it’s all about the backpack. The rising first grader was excited to see all her new school supplies.
“Glue and a pen!” said Dawson.
And that’s just fine for Knowell, who is known as the neighborhood’s official Grandma.
“I don’t ever want to forget that I have kids,” said Knowell. “I have grandkids that love me and are still here.”