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STLCC Students Learn about the Reality of Homelessness among Rockwood Students, Vow to Help

February 12, 2015

Food drive posters  
Wildwood students created posters to draw attention to a food drive on campus to support the
"Got Your Backpack" program for youngsters in the Rockwood School District.

In the “Equity in Education” class at St. Louis Community College-Wildwood, students were shown two pictures side by side. One is of a man sitting on the street in front of a grocery cart. The other is of two young children holding hands, with backpacks.

“We ask our students to point out which of these pictures shows a person who is homeless,” said Maureen Smith, a first grade teacher at Rockwood School District’s Fairway Elementary School who recently visited the class. “Most often, they point to the man with the grocery cart. Then we tell them that both pictures are examples of homelessness.”

Smith, with the help of her colleague Suzanne Dotta, founded Rockwood’s “Got Your Backpack” program.  The program provides food to 115 students in the Rockwood School District each week. Each student receives a bag of food on Fridays to last through the weekend.

Smith approached Dotta and Terry Harris, Rockwood’s coordinator of educational equity and diversity, during a break at a district meeting that was held at the STLCC campus a few years ago. “I wanted to move more slowly, but Maureen pushed me to get it going right away,” Harris said. “We started with 10 students.”

Smith has been the driving force behind the program.

“Truthfully, this program is successful because Maureen is one-thousand percent behind its success,” Harris said.

Getting It off the Ground

The pantry is housed at Fairway Elementary where she teaches, and parents from the PTO there volunteer to make it work. Smith and her husband provided resources for the grocery items and to build pantry shelves to get the program off the ground, and continue to be enthusiastic advocates and supporters for the program and those it helps.

“All great educators can tell who the students in need are in the building. If you pay attention, you can tell,” Harris said. “The students might wear the same clothes every day. They might have discipline problems. They might not be able to concentrate because they are hungry. Sometimes the students we are helping tell a friend who also needs help. We also work with counselors and social workers, but it is all confidential.”

Smith said that nobody at the schools knows who receives the backpacks except the counselors who help the students.

Although the program has grown quickly, Harris isn’t completely satisfied. “The ones I lose sleep over are the kids we don’t find,” Harris said. “We’ve identified 300 students who are homeless in the district, but there are probably 600 who need help. These are the kids who hide their situation. They’re doing a decent job of staying clean. They’re smart. They are doing okay in school. There’s a system to find kids, but we’re not even close to finding some of them.”

He explained that being homeless doesn’t necessarily mean being on the street. “’Homeless’ means not residing in a fixed, adequate housing unit. So these students could be sleeping on a couch at a friend’s house or at an aunt’s house. We know we have about 20 students who spend time in shelters.”

Education Is the Great Equalizer

Most of the students who benefit from the program are enrolled in a federal program to ensure that they are fed at school during the week. However, they may not have food when they go home on the weekends. The program is designed to help students so they can learn and turn their situations around.

“Education is the great equalizer,” Harris said. “Whatever we may think, it’s important to understand the difference between living in poverty and being poor. Poor is not having a lot of money or barely making it through. Poverty is systemic. It goes from generation to generation, and it’s a condition that takes a lot to overcome. Sixty percent of children of poor families live with parents who have less than a high school education. “

Harris noted that even if the parents get a job, their situation may not change. Some of the parents may have jobs, but they don’t have enough money to pay their bills and buy food.

“We’re trying to break that cycle” he said. “We see these students having problems with testing, health, illnesses and absences. We are trying to target those kids who are struggling and need food. If you’re hungry, you can’t concentrate. You can’t learn.  We want to help them so they can be successful in school.”

Some of the STLCC students had not thought about generational poverty and didn’t realize that homelessness was as prevalent as it is. They were surprised to find out how many kids in Rockwood were homeless.

Smith said they give out 10 to 12 items of food to each student. “We provide them with food that is easy to prepare. We try to give students non-perishable food in its own container. We’re not sure if all of the students have access to refrigerators or stoves,” Smith said. “The amount of food in the pantry varies since it’s stocked entirely through donations. Sometimes we get down to very little. We want our community to know that every donation counts. A donation of 5 to 10 items makes a difference. ”

Community Partners

In addition to the donations they receive from groups and individuals, the program also partners with Dierberg’s in Wildwood, Ellisville Farmer’s Market, and Lucky’s Market. They get items like milk and oatmeal from Operation Food Search. Dierberg’s keeps a cart in the front of its store for daily donations.

Harris asked each of the students in the class what they intended to do after graduating. He told them that all of them would see the problem of poverty in their future jobs. “Three of you are going into education. You may think that you won’t see the problem if you teach in a place like Rockwood,” Harris said. “Rockwood is lucky compared to other districts, but we still have students who are in need.”

The class was moved to take action and is conducting a food drive to benefit the program.

“The presentation showed me that anyone can make a difference and be a huge help. Hearing the story of how the Backpack program came to be was inspiring and makes me want to take action,” Milena Davis said.

Student Emily Freeman agreed. “The presentation was very inspiring. It’s nice to know that people really care. I feel like the food drive is just a step of kindness.”

The drive will run from now through Feb. 24. Donations can be brought to the lobby of STLCC-Wildwood or any Rockwood school.