A single class at has collected and packaged about 90 “basic needs packs” to make life a little easier for fellow students in the Lake Washington School District who are homeless or otherwise in need.
Sponsors of the effort hoped the kids could collect enough donations for 40 tote bags -- packed with essentials like soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, shampoo, bandages, socks, even thumb drives for homework. But the effort far exceeded those expectations.
“They were real excited about helping,” says teacher Rita Costello of the 7th, 8th and 9th-grade members of her KJH Leadership Class. “The kids got behind it, the community got behind it, bags just started coming in.”
Last week, the kids loaded about 90 of the basic needs bags into Lake Washington PTSA Council member Marlene Vacknitz’s van. She drove them down to LWSD headquarters in Redmond and turned them over the Cheryl Chikalla, the district’s homeless liaison. It’s her job to identify homeless kids in the district, and try to help them as best she can. At least one homeless student in desperate need is already using the supplies.
“They did a marvelous job,” says Chikalla. “I was tickled pink to see the bags. Students helping students is a great connection.”
PTSA Council member Vacknitz, a Finn Hill parent, said the idea for the program began when she was shocked to learn that almost 180 students in the district right now do not have a place to call home. She decided to try and mobilize the PTSA, so she and an Evergreen Junior High School teacher who organizes a food donation program for students in need took the issue to a PTSA council meeting.
“There were many tears in the room and a lot of people were shocked by that information,” she says. “People don’t think the Eastside has these needs, they think, this is the Eastside! The need on the Eastside is there and people don’t realize it.”
Since many efforts have already been launched to provide weekend food for students in needs -- such as a 17-school “Pantry Pack” program and -- it was decided to meet other needs of the students. Vacknitz and Chikalla approached Costello, and the teacher and her Leadership Class students were happy to help.
The donated $300 for the thumb drives -- they allow homeless students to take their assignments with them and work at libraries or whereever they can access a computer. The Microsoft store in Bellevue donated 50 tote bags to carry the supplies. Students’ parents and neighbors donated the supplies. Gift cards worth $300 were donated.
“It’s amazing what happens when you get people behind something,” says Vacknitz. But she is not finished. There is more work to be done. The need is on-going. She believes some larger effort that addresses the total need is necessary, perhaps the recently organized, Eastside-wide “Nourishing Networks.”
Chikalla says the current count of homeless students in the Lake Washington School District is about 180, but will likely grow as the year continues and more such students are identified. Homeless kids don’t always let on. They often prefer to avoid the stigma of homelessness.
Last year at this time the district counted some 173 homeless students, but ended the school year at 207. That was up from 149 homeless students in the 2009-10 school year.
There are other students in need as well, in varying levels.
“I see it as sort of concentric rings,” says Chikalla. “The first ring is homeless students. The next ring is the almost homeless.”