“When you don’t do your homework in the evening, what is the reason?” appeared as one of the questions in an open-ended survey given to school children in the Richmond School District last year. The survey was conducted by a retired superintendent in the area.
The answer wasn’t completely unexpected, but the numbers were.
Approximately 32 percent answered that they “didn’t feel well” so they didn’t do their homework. The reason? It was hunger, and it is right here in Richmond. Nearly half of Richmond students qualify for the free or reduced lunch program.
This topic and information from the survey were presented at a community meeting Tuesday, Dec. 2, at the Board of Education office in Richmond.
The district sent invitations to the clergy, Salvation Army, several parents and district personnel in order to bring awareness to the community and to join together to assist students in these troubled times.
“There are students that are hungry – but we didn’t know the degree that were,” said Richmond School District Curriculum Director Julie Stevenson.
Statistics from the survey prompted the initiation of the Backpack Program at Dear and Sunrise Elementary. Each Friday, donated food from individuals and businesses is placed in 10 students’ backpacks at Dear and 25 to 30 students at Sunrise to pro vide them with something to eat over the weekend. The food doesn’t require preparation, and is easy for small hands and fingers to open.
“This program was taken on by some very caring employees for the students,” Stevenson said. “We don’t go through any agency. It’s just something that was the right thing to do.”
“Many, many parents call and express their gratitude,” said Stevenson. “Some said, ‘we didn’t have food over the weekend and appreciate being able to feed our children.’ You just marvel at how thankful parents are.”
The Backpack Program has not been implemented at RMS or RHS so far. Vice-principal Piper Peterson said, “This is a harder age. We have students that are hungry, but the Backpack Program for their younger siblings helps.” The faculties of both upper level schools were concerned that it may not be as accepted by students there, as well as issues of discretion and privacy.
Is anyone talking with the parents to help them find ways to get assistance?” April Maulsby asked.
Stevenson indicated she has referred families to Salvation Army and Family Services but said, “The resources are drying up.”
Mike Johnson, of the Richmond Ministerial Alliance, said the food pantries and shelters are experiencing difficulties, though the Richmond pantry is “pretty good.” He said, “Most food pantries said they were bare at the last meeting.” At least one charity gave out chickens for Thanksgiving because no turkeys were donated this year.
Hunger is not the only issue students are facing. Basic utilities are being shut off at homes, thus hurting the physical hygiene of some students.
“Water is getting turned off for a few months, then the family gets it turned back on,” said Peterson. “We have classmates and teachers reporting that some students have bad body odor, so we’re having them shower at school.”
Carole Garth, principal at Dear, also said some students have used the shower in the school’s nurse’s room.
The other schools in the district are experiencing similar situations.
“We need bath supplies – soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and deodorant,” said Peterson. “We’re seeing a need for mittens, hats, gloves, clothing and shoes too, but our students are concerned about the kind they find acceptable.”
One educator said they arranged for a student to have a shower at school, and learned the student was only allowed one shower per week to save water at their house.
Each school acknowledged their counselors are getting many referrals regarding hunger and hygiene.
“Sending stuff home works,” said Peterson. “but, how do we help get water bills paid?”
Stephanie Landwehr asked if there was counseling available for students in these situations. Peterson said RMS has a counselor from Synergy Services that comes to the school, and reports that many of these students are just getting through the day. “They’re on survival mode,” she added.
Counseling and education on hygiene and bullying are taught once a year at Sunrise, according to Principal Megan Owens. She indicated considering having it taught twice a year.
Several in attendance expressed concerns that all students be taught about how to deal with each other, how to be compassionate and understanding that some students are hungry or have hygiene issues, and what to do.
“Some students are oblivious to the fact that some kids don’t have water,” Landwehr commented.
At this point, Salvation Army store supervisor Joy Story said, “We are limited in our resources. A family can come to us once a year to get help with utilities. We also work with them on budgeting issues.”
RHS Principal Karen Southwick said, “It’s very embarrassing for our students to ask for help. Our counselors work hard to help. For body odors, the nurse has some supplies. Some of our students come to us. We have a lot of needy families.”
Southwick praised her students for their generosity and community involvement. She cited the Adopt-a-Tree that National Honor Society, Student Council and Key Club are doing. She said donations are down and gave the example of the 14,000 items NHS collected for the Salvation Army last year. The same efforts this year only netted close to 4,000 items.
Superintendent Jim Robins said, “Every student that’s not living with mom and dad are instructed to meet with the superintendent when they move into this district. It’s a safety thing. There are lots of kids not living in the Ozzie and Harriett house. Whenever I have a student that has been suspended for more than 10 days, very seldom do mom and dad and the student come to meet with me.” He said students with both parents in the home, with a strong family unit are not the students that he sees in his office.
“We have around 1,600 students. Of that number, probably 700-800 are really hurting and not living in that happy home,” Robins said.
The clergy had remained silent for most of the discussion, listening intently. Several were visibly moved.
“It’s quite humbling to listen,” said Brian Guy of the Christian Fellowship Ministries of Richmond. “My concern is dealing with the root issues. We’ll continue to spiral into self-destruction if we don’t. I want to thank you for what you’re doing.”
A parent said, “It’s eye opening. I wasn’t aware.”
Robins added, “The numbers don’t tell the real story. Thirty-nine percent of our students qualify for free lunch. It’s higher at the kindergarten to fifth grade level – 45-46 percent.”
With the number of those receiving free or reduced lunches, the estimate is half of Richmond students are in one of those programs.
Photo: To assist, one may donate money or non-perishable food items that do not require much preparation and are easy for young children to open, or hygiene products such as soap, shampoo, rinse, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, wash cloths and towels.
To donate food or money for the Backpack Program, contact Debbie Heil at Dear or Julie Hyder at Sunrise. To donate hygiene items, contact the school nurse at the individual schools. Contact the Richmond School District office at 816-776-6912 for more information.
(Photo Illustration by Dennis Sharkey/The Daily News)