Project HELP: 'Homeless' doesn't end when school bells ring

August 4, 2018 10:05:18 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Kelli Phelps has been busy. Her Wednesday morning was spent transporting a carload of backpacks, hygiene products, notebooks, cleaning wipes, pencils and other school supplies -- all donations collected by members of the Golden Triangle Association of Realtors. The items aren't for her, of course. They are for Project HELP, operated by the Starkville Oktibbeha County Consolidated School District's Family Centered Programs (FCP) to assist "homeless" students in pre-K through 12th grade. Phelps is project coordinator. Each donated glue stick, dictionary, uniform and colored marker is intended to help a child in difficult circumstances.  


The beginning of school should be a time of anticipation and excitement. But in a sea of students with new uniforms, pristine shoes and bright backpacks stuffed with school supplies, a child with last year's sneakers, a faded shirt and worn, empty pack usually feels conspicuous for all the wrong reasons. That can lead to loss of confidence, lack of engagement and low attendance, choking off opportunities to thrive in school. It happens too often to children without consistent living situations. That affects about 80 to 150 students in the Starkville Oktibbeha district each year. 




What is homeless? 


Project HELP provides support to eligible students under provisions of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The legislation, passed by Congress in 1987 and last reauthorized in 2015, is designed to help children and youth who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. That doesn't necessarily mean living "on the street." 


Family Centered Programs Director Joan Butler said, "The definition (of homeless) may not be what people traditionally think about. It may be multiple families living together, or situations where the household is not sanitary or not fit for residing in." 


Phelps added, "We usually say it's students who have less than desirable or stable living environments. The parent may be incarcerated, the children may be staying with extended family, or two families may be doubled up in one house. We have people who have lost their homes due to fire, just all kinds of situations. But the basis is to help students who don't have a consistent place to lay their heads every night." 


Those students are less likely to show up in school and, when they do, are less likely to have necessary books and supplies, Phelps noted. 


Butler said, "We've even found that some children don't even have detergent to wash their clothes, and we provide that so they can keep their clothes clean. Attendance is a real factor, and we want no barriers to exist for those children (to be in school)." 


Funded by grants and community donations, Project HELP can also provide after-school tutoring for eligible students. 


"We also may pay for some fees that children are required to pay to be able to participate in other activities," Butler explained. Those might include shoes necessary for an athletic event, or, as in one instance, paying for a cap and gown for a senior to take part in graduation. 




Seeing need 


When students return to classrooms this week, teachers, staff and counselors will be on the front lines of identifying those who may need Project HELP.  


"And sometimes they can self-identify because we make the information available to families to know how they might meet that (homeless) definition," said Butler.  


As a district parent and FCP bookkeeper, Emily Jenkins is well aware the need exists.  


"For older middle school children in particular, it's got to be really tough for them to be in that position," said the mother of two. "Sometimes younger children tend to be resilient and may be less aware of a lot of things, but I have a son going into seventh grade, and I know it's a difficult time of transition." 


Public support for Project HELP has always been strong, particularly when grant funding is lacking. Individuals as well as organizations such as United Way of North Central Mississippi and Junior Auxiliary of Starkville have stepped in. Members of the Golden Triangle Knitting Guild even made hats, mittens and scarves for students. 


"This is a very generous community," said Phelps. "There isn't a day that I come into my office that there isn't something sitting on my desk."  


Christina Lucas donated items to the recent Association of Realtors' drive chaired by fellow real estate agent Kerri Matthews. Lucas and Matthews are both affiliated with Tom Smith Land and Homes, where the supplies were gathered for pick-up Wednesday. 


"I think Realtors tend to care about where we live and the quality of life, and we all know teachers and parents need support. This is just a way to say, hey, we're all connected," Lucas said. "There are those who, for whatever reason, it's going to be harder to get supplies organized, and a lot of times that trickles down to teachers filling in the gaps. And while they'll gladly do it many times, if we can bring those resources to them, it's just the right thing to do." 


For Phelps, working with Project HELP is fulfilling, especially when she sees it impact a child or teen at a critical time in their life.  


"It's rewarding," she said. "You feel like you're doing something." 


Editor's note: For more information about Project HELP, contact Family Centered Programs at 662-615-0033. Inquire about similar programs in other school districts by contacting a school office.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.