The middle school student stopped coming to class.
She wasn’t ill. She wasn’t in trouble. She was…
“Embarrassed,” recalled Gail Freund, the lead social worker in Forsyth County’s school system. “She was embarrassed because she didn’t want to come to school (wearing) dirty clothes.”
More and more, as state data indicates an increase in the percentage of Georgia students in poverty, schools and students are providing food, clothes and items such as laundry detergent to students and families in need. And the need is not confined to lower-income pockets of metro Atlanta and Georgia.
In Forsyth County, which has the highest median household income of all Georgia counties, elementary schools have rooms that have been turned into food pantries.
In Gwinnett County, the state’s largest public school district, one elementary school has turned a room into a clothing closet and its counselor keeps snacks outside her office for hungry students.
In Atlanta, which has the highest poverty rate of any major city or county in the region, one principal said she has dug into her own pockets to buy coats at Goodwill for some students.
Educators explain the difficulties for students who are hungry, or have few clean clothes.
“The test scores that (people) see are not truly indicative of what students can do” because of these challenges, said Melanie Mitchell, principal of Atlanta’s Humphries Elementary School, where the faculty gives out Ziploc bags on Fridays with cereal and snacks to its 365 students.
Said Freund: “When you are hungry, it’s hard to concentrate” on schoolwork.
Other schools nationwide are dealing with similar challenges. About 42 million Americans were at risk of hunger last year, a decline from 2014, but still greater than before the Great Recession, according to federal government data.
When Freund arrived in Forsyth in 2005, there were no food pantries at any schools in the district. Today, in addition to pantries, some Forsyth schools have clothing closets and a program where they deliver backpacks filled with food to needy elementary/middle school children for the weekends, when they cannot rely on meals at school.
Where schools used to focus their efforts on helping lower-income students through free or reduced-price school meals, more schools have become de facto community centers, with social workers and liaisons for the homeless on the payroll. In August, Atlanta officials opened health clinics in two schools.
One Saturday a month, Mitchell and assistant principal Benita Grant meet with more than a dozen parents in a nearby apartment complex who are struggling financially. They discuss life’s obstacles and ways to hurdle them.
Mitchell, like many educators, is struck by the scope of the tasks they perform.
“As a principal, it feels like you’re standing on a rooftop and you see all these needs and you have to help,” she said.
Anecdotal evidence shows it’s helping.
Forsyth County parent Tara Cater, 42, has been a grateful beneficiary. Her family has had various financial challenges in recent years and has moved frequently. She’s occasionally received backpacks filled with food, bathroom tissue, laundry detergent, toothpaste, shampoo and other items.
“It was a blessing,” Cater said. “It was nice of them.”
Mitchell believes the assistance the school has provided has helped reduce disciplinary infractions and improved student attendance that is tops in the district.
Schools get help through donations by local businesses, partnerships with community organizations, volunteers and students who ask family and friends to help. School district administrators support these efforts by helping schools find resources.
Twin Gwinnett high school students Lauren and Steven Seroyer started what they called a CARE Closet at their school, Peachtree Ridge, during the 2015-16 school year after a classmate told Lauren he didn’t have much food at home.
“I couldn’t sit there and not do anything,” said Lauren, 16.
Local businesses and classmates help stock the closet, a silver clothes-size locker built by Steven and his dad, with items such as Ramen noodles, grits, rice and canned peaches. Last Monday, one student took six items and wrote “Thank You” on a form left in the closet.
The Seroyer twins have a goal of creating CARE Closets in each county high school and across the country, they wrote in a PowerPoint they showed school administrators when they pitched their idea. Another Gwinnett school has a closet, and students at other schools in the district want to start their own.
School social workers learn about specific needs from parents or privately from students. At Forsyth Central High, athletic teams also take turns asking family, friends and strangers for food, clothing and other items classmates need. The school has a large room called the Bulldog Giving Center that is filled with about two dozen boxes of pasta, Raisin Bran, Pop Tarts, peanut butter, soap, deodorant and many other items. In one corner of the room, a clothing rack is stocked with shirts, heavy coats and prom dresses.
The center is mainly managed by Wendy Goodrow, a parent who volunteers. Once a week, teachers pack up boxes with some of the items and deliver them to students’ families. Goodrow and her team recently helped a student who needed a bed.
“I did not know how the great the need is,” she said.
School district leaders have looked for faster and better ways to help and are turning to technology. The website Purposity has become one such method. Forsyth school officials asked web developer Blake Canterbury to help them. He created a site that shares information to potential donors about what people need. They buy items from Amazon.com, which are shipped to the school, and teachers deliver them to families. Canterbury is hoping to expand Purposity to other school districts, like Atlanta.
Two years ago, then-Peachtree Ridge High student Jack Griffin created a website called FoodFinder to alert students where to find nearby food banks. Griffin, now a student at the University of Michigan, has continued to develop FoodFinder, with the help of his parents.
Griffin did not know the Seroyer twins when he attended the school, but he’s happy to see their work on this front. Lauren Seroyer said the student who talked to her about being hungry one day sent her a note on social media one day to say what she and her brother are doing is “amazing.”
“This is something we are passionate about,” she said. “We saw a real need and tried to help so that student doesn’t have to say that again.”