By Steve Powell
MARYSVILLE – One child went to school without shoes.
Five others lived with two adults in a camper in a church parking lot for months.
Older kids leave home and sleep on a friend’s couch or bedroom floor because it’s better than being at home.
They are among the more than 500 homeless students in the Marysville School District, of which 166 are “unaccompanied youth.”
Deanna Bashour is tasked with connecting with them, then getting them services that will help them be successful in school. Larisa Koenig is working with her on a new mentor program that will connect community members with homeless kids to show them somebody cares.
In her fourth year with the McKinney-Vento program, Bashour said working with the kids can be heart-breaking.
“I’ve cried myself, often,” she said, adding community donations are a big help as the program is an unfunded federal mandate.
Bashour said she connects well with the kids because she went to high school here in the 1990s.
“I was not in a good place at the time,” she said, adding one of her teachers, Cheryl Hogle, “Saved my life. That lady left footprints on my heart forever.”
Now retired, Hogle is the reason Bashour has been working with kids for 15 years. “She was my saving grace who taught me I was worth it,” Bashour said, adding, “I want to be the someone I never had.”
McKinney-Vento is a temporary resource for kids in transition so when everything else is chaotic their school routine can be as normal as possible.
“This minimizes their trauma and allows them to focus on some aspects of school,” Bashour said.
Fall is the busiest time of year as families seek shelter after camping during the nice summer months. Last fall, a mom and two sons were camping in a tent along the Machias River. Several families were in RVs parked in driveways. Food, water and blankets were taken to a family of three who were living in an SUV, including one who was severely disabled. There are also families that drive around in their cars, sleep where they can and clean up at local rest stops.
When Bashour started there were 216 students in the program. Then it climbed to 317, 420 and now 508. Part of that is people are more aware of it. But another factor is the lack of affordable housing locally. Bashour wants to break down the stereotype that people are homeless because of mental illness or drug abuse. She works with people who hold down two jobs and still can’t afford to live anywhere.
“These are working families who still can’t make ends meet,” she said. Some are homeless because the rent is raised, they can’t afford it, they move out, but they can’t come up with first- and last-months’ rent for a new place. Others are homeless because of flooding or a fire. “A car accident can change your life in minutes,” Bashour added.
While unfunded, the program is given Title 1 money based on poverty levels. But Bashour said that pays only for very basic supplies.
Money in McKinney-Vento can only pay for educational expenses, so sometimes she rallies co-workers to help.
“We provide everything we can,” she said, such as caps and gowns to graduating homeless.
Bashour said students can be helped with transportation, clothing, shelter, housing, medical resources, backpacks, supplies and hygiene kits. Funds can also be used to pay for fines, fees and meals.
Of the students, she said, “We want to make sure they don’t stink, but they have clean clothes.”
Bashour’s main role is to help homeless families navigate the system and connect with social services. She wants to network and find more community partnerships to work with so more students can be helped.
Two families she’s worked with recently moved to Miracle House. She said more similar housing is needed locally.
One of her favorite stories is of a senior who was sleeping at Jennings Park. She helped him get a bus pass so he could get to and from school. He ended up getting his GED and now has a job.
“He knew someone cared,” she said. “Kids are so resilient.”
Bashour and Koenig are excited about the new mentorship program at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. “They need adult role models,” Koenig said of homeless students, adding she’s seeking up to 100 volunteers.
By pairing homeless students with responsible adults, the district hopes to see their absenteeism go down and their grades up. Volunteers will meet at the school where the child attends for about an hour a week. No contact is allowed outside of school. MSD is working with LINC NW & HOPE Mentoring on the program. School district employees, along with police and fire personnel, are being asked first since they already have passed background checks. Mentors need to be good listeners and provide comfort on a consistent basis. They will be matched on hobbies and interests, along with potential careers. This year the district also has started a graduation success program to help at-risk seniors stay on track. Last year, just 18 of 60 homeless seniors graduated. This year, liaison Rosemary Peterson works one on one with them to help them navigate college systems, introduce them to apprenticeship options, trades programs, and what they need to gain work skills. “Most of these kids are first generation to complete high school and go on to college or another career path. This is the first step to implementing a tool kit these kids can use post high school to break the cycle and not become a statistic in our adult homeless population,” Bashour said.
She added: “By the time these families get to me or their student’s counselor for help, they are in pretty dire need. By building relationships with them and connecting them with the partnerships we have in place, I get to shine the little ray of hope they momentarily forgot about while their life is in chaos.
“I get to hug them and let them know we care, and we will do what we can for as long as it takes.”
How to help
To donate: Make checks out to the Marysville School District McKinney-Vento Trust.
To mentor: Contact Larisa Koenig at email@example.com
To partner: Contact Deanna Bashour at firstname.lastname@example.org. Partners already include: Salvation Army, Marysville Food Bank, YMCA, Housing Hope, United Way, Interfaith Shelter, Word of Life Women’s Ministry, Marysville United Methodist Church, 10th Street Boys and Girls Club, Kung Fu 4 Kids, Cocoon House and more.