As they work to brighten the lives of homeless children enrolled in Marietta City Schools, Ana Mateo and Brenda Espinoza see some heartbreaking situations. On any given day, they might talk to an elementary school student who lives in an extended stay hotel and goes hungry on the weekends, or to a high school student who sleeps on a friend’s couch and lacks the support of a loving family.
Fortunately, their jobs are joyful, too: Mateo and Espinoza find satisfaction in connecting these students with resources that can make a difference in their lives. As District Homeless Liaison, Clerk, Strategy and Innovation, Mateo oversees counselors, homeless liaisons and social workers within the Charter school system. (The district serves more than 8,900 students at eight elementary choice schools, a sixth-grade academy, a middle school and a high school.) Espinoza is Family Resources Facilitator at the Marietta Student Life Center, which provides in-school services related to housing, job skills, job placement for students and families, college admission and psychological issues, and also offers tutoring, a food pantry and family and student counseling.
All told, about 350 children in the system are considered homeless right now, Espinoza says, noting that the number tends to fluctuate due to transient living situations. Several Simple Needs GA (SNGA) programs routinely help this population of students and/or their families by providing furniture, cleaning kits, five-item toiletries bags, birthday presents and school supplies, and more.
SNGA recently asked Mateo and Espinoza to describe the needs they encounter in the district, as well as what the community can do to help.
For starters, Mateo says, many low-income students in the district struggle to afford new shoes. “A lot of our students wear the same, hand-me-down shoes for far too long,” she said. Simple Needs GA is doing its part to help: Each month, our Shoe Them Love program distributes at least 20 gift cards ($25 each) to four social workers in the system who use the cards to ensure that kids receive new shoes or boots in the styles and sizes they want. Shoe Them Love also accepts donated shoes, so long as they are brand-new. They are distributed from the school system’s clothes closet.
The families of homeless or low-income students also can have a hard time paying for required school uniforms, like khaki pants or navy blue polo shirts, Mateo says. In recognition of this need in Marietta and elsewhere, SNGA’s Uniforms for Excellence program collects gently used khakis, skirts and polo shirts that meet the requirements of individual schools. In some cases, our donors also buy brand-new uniforms for kids. For Marietta City Schools, SNGA distributes these uniforms to dedicated closets within the district.
According to Espinoza, lack of transportation among schoolchildren in the system is an underappreciated need. The district includes students who live in hotels, stay with other families or are enrolled in transitional housing or shelters. Sometimes, buses are available to pick them up and bring them to school, but this is only the beginning of their transportation needs, Espinoza says.
“Sometimes what can work better for students is to take Uber or Lyft to get from place to place,” she said. “Some of the students that I work with have jobs, so they might need help getting to those jobs. It’s a way to help them get back on their feet and sustain themselves so they are not falling further behind.”
Older teens may be able to ride Uber or Lyft with parental permission, while younger kids can travel with a parent. While school counselors, social workers and homeless liaisons can sometimes provide families with gas cards, the availability of these is limited, Espinoza says.
Simple Needs GA doesn’t have a specific program to collect Uber or Lyft gift cards, but if our donors and volunteers feel inspired to run drives or otherwise collect such gift cards, SNGA would be happy to distribute them to social workers within Marietta City Schools, says SNGA Founder Brenda Rhodes. “Filling in the services gaps is what we’re all about,” she said.
In addition to transportation needs, the nonprofit-supported food pantries operated by the system are always in need of restocking, especially during off times like fall, winter or spring break, Espinoza says, and so donations of gift cards from grocery stores like Kroger or Publix could be hugely helpful. Here, too, SNGA would be happy to collect grocery store gift cards and distribute these to the school system, Brenda says.
The pantries can be extremely important for children and their families, Espinoza noted. “For example, Marietta High School’s food pantry often supplies not only the high school students, but also their families for the weekend,” she said. “Kids are always hungry. They are always snacking—after all, they’re growing kids. We try to give them as much as we can, but the pantries can empty quickly.”
Lastly, the families of homeless schoolchildren in the district often struggle to buy their children something most of us took for granted as kids—birthday presents. SNGA’s My Birthday Matters program brings brand-new toys, school supplies, a no-sew blanket, a stuffed animal, reading books, coloring books, underwear, socks, and other useful items to homeless schoolchildren in the district and elsewhere in the county who are celebrating their birthdays. We collaborate with counselors and social workers to identify those children who are considered homeless. (SNGA also helps children living in local shelters as well as the children of our furniture clients.)
Last year, My Birthday Matters helped 217 children across the county.
Mateo and Espinoza describe their work on behalf of homeless and low-income schoolchildren as life changing. Given that Cobb County has a reputation for affluence, it can be easy to forget that some children here face tremendous challenges. “We are dealing with students who want to come to school, do their best and get ahead,” Espinoza said. “They want to get back on their feet. We all go through really tough times in our lives where sometimes we need just a little bit of extra help. I know that what we’re doing here, in partnership with the community, is giving some of these kids hope and stability.”
Particularly important, adds Mateo, is finding a way to break generational cycles related to poverty, addiction or homelessness. The work starts with providing basic necessities, she says, but often includes providing access to psychologists, counselors and other professionals who can help children and families better cope with these difficult challenges. “My heart goes out to the parents that have not been able to get out of these situations,” she said. “They were probably in the situation themselves as children, and now it is carrying over to their kids’ lives. What can we do to help their children not fall into homelessness when they get older? There is a lot of emotion involved in our jobs. We always strive to be compassionate and to understand that every case is different.”