Photo by Shane Kantzer
A 14-year-old girl who has attended the same schools with the same friends since starting kindergarten has just found out that her family is losing their home after her father was diagnosed with an illness which has forced him to quit work.
Medical and other bills pile up and the family has to move into their grandparent’s home only a mile away but in a different school district.
Imagine this girl’s pain, her emotions at not only coping with her father’s illness but also losing her home and even her friends if she is forced to attend a new school just before starting high school. This can be devastating to anyone, especially young children.
The sad truth is it is happening to more and more people as the economy continues to threaten many families into what is considered homelessness, many of those families right here in Lake Stevens.
Lake Stevens School District typically reports close to 100 homeless students each year.
Snohomish County did a homeless count last month and found that the numbers have gone up slightly since 2011.
This year’s total, which is still incomplete, shows 2,382 individuals in 1,401 households without a permanent place to stay.
This compares to last year’s final count of 2,273 individuals in 1,385 households. Of the individuals counted this year, an estimated 829 were homeless children under the age of 18.
The good news is that there is a federal law that provides for school children who have been stricken with homelessness called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
McKinney-Vento defines homelessness as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This can include anyone from those who move-in with family or friends, to those individuals who live in their cars, parks, homeless shelters and everyone in between.
Lisa Sofie who is the McKinney-Vento Liaison, District Assessment Coordinator for Lake Stevens School District ensures that these students are being taken care of according to the McKinney-Vento guidelines.
“My job is that I get to ensure students in Lake Stevens who are considered homeless, and not all homeless students are actually without a home (they are living with others to, basically, survive) are given an equal opportunity to go to the same school they currently attend and be given an equitable educational experience as his or her peers,” Sofie explains. “I love this part of my job. I am the one who confidentially ensures we erase as many barriers as possible so that these students can learn without having to pre-occupy themselves with what most students never even have to think about, i.e., how to get a meal before school begins and during lunch, be properly dressed for P.E., have necessary supplies for each class, go on field trips with their classmates and, most of all, get transportation to and from their school of origin. This ensures some sort of consistency in their lives while trying to learn and get through very difficult times.”
Sofie is quick to explain that they don’t call these kids homeless.
“I train people to be sensitive and we don’t say homeless,” Sofie said. “Our second goal is that these children are not ostracized. I try to break down the barriers that these students face on a daily basis that other students may not have to face. It’s all about confidentiality.”
Some of the programs the Lake Stevens School District have in place include Operation School Bell, which helps kids get clothes, under garments and other basic necessities to start school each year. Operation School Bell is only open a few times a year.
Local PTAs have been instrumental in ensuring that no student has to stay home from a field trip or be excluded from other school projects due to lack of funds. The Lake Stevens Food Bank can provide food for the families and the Lake Stevens Family Center is instrumental in helping families receive government help and other necessities.
“Together, the schools, school district, and community members have worked together in order to cultivate benevolent behavior,” Sofie said.
The annual food drive at Lake Stevens High School in December collected enough food to feed our students in need for the year.
“Not only does this contribute to preparing our students to be ‘citizenship ready,’ it has supported a PTA program started by Anita Caffee, a parent volunteer, who has now gotten parents in each school packing food for students before they leave for the weekend, a holiday break, and more,” Sofie said.
In-school counselors and nurses, are working endlessly to nonchalantly discover which students need coats throughout the year, among other things. There was a gap, however, in getting students coats in a timely manner especially during the colder seasons.
“I began a ‘Cool Coats for Kids’ campaign first supported by our District Board President, David Iseminger. This man is driven to do what’s best for kids and kids with needs,” Sofie said. “We still need new coats daily, but the community has really come through for our kids, as well.”
City Council Member Kim Daughtry and other volunteers such as Tonya Christoffersen, Scott and Pam Wicken and Monika Kristofferson collect donations, have built an organizational system for the coats and needed supplies, and use Facebook to request even more donations.
“One hundred hats were knitted and donated from those who care through one request. Inadvertently, all these people have become change agents—people who make positive change, a difference, by way of their actions,” Sofie explained.
Working with these kids and their families is just one part of Sofie’s job, but you can see the conviction and love in her eyes as she talks about their trials and the humble circumstances many of these students are living in.
“What many tell me when I make my daily calls as a liaison between the Lake Stevens schools and families of students in need is, ‘I had no idea people cared let alone that there is a law that guarantees students educational rights to go to school.’ Our students have been embraced by thoughtful community members and PTAs who have chosen to volunteer their time and donate to PTA to help support students who fall under this law,” she said.
The Lake Stevens community always seems to step up when they see a need and helping those who fall under this umbrella of homelessness has once again brought out the best in our community.
“When you see a gap, such as students eating during the week at school but not on the weekends, and when you see children in need without a coat during a snow storm, you can’t help but do something, anything, about it,” Sofie said. “Lake Stevens students in need go to school feeling like any other child, that’s the goal. Being cold and suffering from hunger impairs children’s health, causes health related absences in school, impedes ability to learn and perform academically, and predisposes children to behavioral difficulties. Feeding the children and clothing them properly are just two ways we can help, but it’s sure making a difference.”
If you would like to help by donating new clothes, athletic shoes or toiletries, please contact Lisa Sofie at 425-335-1500.