SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Students in the Sioux Falls School District are back in the classroom, but not everyone stocked up for the new year in the same way.

This fall, many families are making their way to Axtell Park for a shopping spree of sorts.

As the population of Sioux Falls continues to climb, the Sioux Falls School District is stepping up its efforts to assist families.

“This is a place that we wanted to have available to empower families,” SFSD social worker Hannah Schouten said.

The Community Engagement Center at Axtell Park opened in its current form in January 2023, providing free resources to families with children in the Sioux Falls School District.

“We want people to come in and leave feeling like they have what they need to be successful to finish their day or their week,” Schouten said.

Schouten says the resource has proven popular for English learners.

“A lot of EL families are coming. They come here anyway to get enrolled in the district and do all of their testing, and so we’ve been able to serve a lot of EL families,” Schouten said.

Prior to January, each school had their own items, some more than others, now it’s a one-stop, centralized location.

“School supplies, and right now that’s just flying out the door, backpacks that are stocked with school supplies for kids,” Schouten said.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“Winter coats, snow pants, boots, snow gloves, hats,” Schouten said.

There’s even a small food pantry.

“This isn’t a grocery store for families, but it is just a little bit extra to help them get through to either the next food pantry that they’re able to go visit or just the next time they’re able to get to the grocery store,” Schouten said.

The Community Engagement Center also offers knowledge.

“We’ve had beading classes for some of our Native American families,” Schouten said.

“We were able to come in, get some instructions, get some ideas,” Sioux Falls resident Jessy May said.

Jessy May attended the beading class with her daughter, Jenna, who graduated last spring from Washington High School.

“That side of Jenevieve’s family isn’t around to teach her that,” May said.

“I was able to learn a lot that I didn’t know,” Washington High School graduate Jenna Knorr said.

Jenna Knorr is Lakota with family from Pine Ridge.

“Native students are able to bead their caps for graduation, other students can’t really decorate them, and so I was able to learn how to do that, which was tricky but it was definitely worth it,” Knorr said.

This wasn’t the first time May has used these services.

“When my kids were younger, we did utilize the school supply programs and things like that, but it was like you had to show up that one day,” May said.

May prefers the new setup.

“I’m not in that position anymore, but it would have made a huge difference to know if I couldn’t be there that one day because I had to work or had transportation issues, there is a place that you can always go, it’s always going to be here,” May said.

She also hopes to erase any stigma surrounding using these services.

“As hard as it is, it’s really hard when you’re trying to come up with $20 for that backpack and there’s no money,” May said.

“It would be kind of embarrassing but they also wouldn’t know if I were to come here, so that was helpful for the social aspect of it,” Knorr said. “Not having to spend the money that we don’t have to have things that we need,” Knorr added.

The Community Engagement Center is also looking to assist teachers.

“Teachers often spend their own money to just stock their classroom and get ready for their students, so if we can provide some supplies for teachers so they don’t have to be using their paycheck to pay for their classroom, I love being able to provide that for them,” Schouten said.

And none of this would be possible without donations.

“There’s not a Community Engagement Center pile of money, so we find donors and donors contact us too saying they want to donate,” Schouten said.

Schouten has a vision for the Community Engagement Center, and it extends beyond giveaways.

“We want to incorporate classes here for families. I’d love to see parenting classes here. We want to have a cooking class that kind of corresponds with our food pantry, so the food that’s coming in, and your box of food that you’re going to get, what can you make with it,” Schouten said.

Providing families with a recipe for success.

“We want to serve and we want to help families and empower families to be able to live their best life,” Schouten said.

The Community Engagement Center is currently seeking donations of winter gear, but does not accept clothing due to limited space. All other donations can be dropped off during regular business hours.