08/21/2012 05:19 EDT | Updated 10/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Hundreds line up for free school supplies

Hundreds of families lined up outside the Welcome Hall Mission in Montreal's Saint-Henri borough Tuesday, as volunteers handed out backpacks stuffed with donated school supplies against the backdrop of a country fair — complete with pony rides, candy floss and a mechanical bucking bull.

"We want children to go back to school every year with their heads held high," said the mission's executive director, Cyril Morgan. "Just because you are poor, you come from a family that is going through some difficult times, it doesn't mean you have to go to school second-class."

Over two days, the mission will distribute 2,600 backpacks, as well as new clothing and shoes.

"Every year there is a different theme," said Morgan.

This 11th edition was dubbed "a day on the farm." A clown on stilts and another dressed as an overgrown mouse wandered through the crowd, as children stopped to pet rabbits and other animals in the petting zoo, had their faces painted and lined up for a turn at the bouncy castle.

"The parents enjoy it. The kids enjoy it. And hopefully they leave with a better attitude about going back to school."

Morgan said this time of year is always tough for households where money is tight, but with the cost of school supplies up an estimated 12 per cent over last year, this back-to-school season is even more challenging.

"It helps us breathe a little easier," said Boualem Ouibibette, a father of three originally from Algeria. "The girls' school supplies and activities are expensive."

"We had cotton candy, and we had our faces painted!" said Stephie Kamy, 9, as she and her twin sister Charelle showed off their bags of goodies — backpacks jammed with notebooks, pens and pencils and other materials.

"It's a huge relief," said their mother, Germaine Ngechie, who arrived in Canada from Cameroon two years ago. "My husband is at school and not working, and I'm home with the baby."

The mission's multiservice centre, at Acorn and De Courcelle streets, will serve as a fairground until Wednesday afternoon.

Morgan said all are welcome, although families are asked to bring with them proof of need.