The Pine Bluff Black Firefighters Association hosted their 14th annual B.R.A.V.E. Project Fresh Start at the Pine Bluff Convention Center Saturday morning in efforts to get students ready for their first day of school on Monday.

Local firefighters and Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services retirees, along with volunteers and sponsors, gathered at the convention center where they spent the morning handing out free backpacks filled with school supplies to Pine Bluff students.

“B.R.A.V.E. stands for ‘banishing racism and animosity vigorously everywhere’. Our firefighters and females put this together to get kids back to school, make sure they have a successful first day, and help some of the parents that might need a little assistance,” said Anthony Graham, a retired Pine Bluff firefighter. “That’s basically what it’s about. Just giving back to the community.”

Project Fresh Start participants sported bright pink t-shirts highlighting their many sponsors who contributed school supplies to the event, while children took their turns in the bounce house.

“We want every child to have the opportunity to have the necessities so they can be ready for school,” said Lieutenant Cathy Braswell, one of the many people dressed in pink.

Throughout the four-hour event, names of visitors were drawn to receive door prizes such as $50 Walmart gift cards. Parents and children toted different colored backpacks containing notebooks, loose-leaf paper, pens, pencils, crayons, folders, and other back-to-school necessities.

“We are a part of the International Black Association of Professional Firefighters, and our main goal here is to give back,” said Vice President of B.R.A.V.E., Mozell Gipson. “We try to work very, very hard to give back to the people that we serve. We do know and understand that you’re our boss, and we try to provide the best possible service we can for whatever situation it is. And by doing Project Fresh Start, we are trying to emphasize the kids because that is our future.”

However, Project Fresh Start is more than an opportunity to provide families with free supplies, according to Gipson.

Various tables were set up along the convention center walls with different organizations passing out informational pamphlets and cards.

Housing authorities were among the tables present to educate people of their potential housing benefits. The Boys and Girls Club educated parents on their after-school tutorial programs, and Hope Credit offered loan and grant information to college students.

Vivian Flowers, State Representative for District 17, aided event-goers with voter’s registration through the Arkansas Black Legislative Caucus with an ABLC fellow from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

“What we try to do is educate the parent about the child,” Gipson said. “Case in point, the Audubon. They have pre-k, they have after-school care, and they have night care. So let’s just say you’re a single parent and you work twelve hours a day, we want to try to emphasize what you can do or what can be done to help you as a parent.”

Taking a break from announcing door prize winners, and making his rounds around the room, B.R.A.V.E. President Johnnie Brown took a moment to reflect on the success of the event.

“We have partners that have helped us make this event successful. Every year it’s been better and better,” he said. “This year is the best year ever. The Clinton Foundation is here, and they brought enough backpacks for over 1200 kids. We’re so grateful that they saw fit to come here from Little Rock to patronize this event that we’re having.”

Brown, who recently retired from the PBFD, said this won’t be the end of his days with Project Fresh Start.

“It’s great,” Brown said. “But I’m not ending it, but I’m going to be here for support as long as I can. But I feel great. I actually established B.R.A.V.E. in 2004, so not only am I retiring from the fire department, I’m not retiring from B.R.A.V.E., but this is something that I’m proud of … we do scholarship funds, we do this event, and we do a variety of different things throughout the year. Christmas drives, coat drives, you name it, we do it.”

Nate Thomas, Education Programs Manager for the Clinton Foundation, has partnered with Brown and the PBBFA to help make Project Fresh Start a success for the past few years.

“We’ve been partnering with Johnnie for years to help enrich back to school for every student in Pine Bluff and in Little Rock,” Thomas said. “The weekend before, we hosted Head of Class Bash in Little Rock, very similar event, and we partnered with Johnnie years ago to also bring some of our supplies down to Pine Bluff to make sure every student has a great first day back at school.

“Our mission is to enliven the minds of future generations of leaders. And we’re hoping that the small leaders we have in this room will grow up to have a fresh start at school and to become a leader to some capacity. Either local, state, or national.”

This year, Thomas said the Clinton Foundation brought with them Chef Gilbert from their restaurant, 42 Bar and Table, who was giving a live demonstration on how to prepare soup for the entire family using everyday canned goods.

The chef, after completing his demonstration, awarded one parent with a free recipe card and a bag of food to make 10 servings of food at home.

“Whatever the community needs, we’re going to step in and do our part to make this city a better place,” Brown said.