Loads of Love Campaign Helps Schools Combat Absent
At the beginning of the school year, Ms. Tonae Gray, the family-school liaison at Ervin Early Learning Center in the Hickman Mills School District, meets with parents and informs them what her job entails — if they need community resources (their lights have been turned off, they don’t have water, they can’t wash their children’s clothes, etc.), they can reach out to her.
“It always surprises me, in a sad way, when parents reach out because they usually wait until they’re overwhelmed,” Ms. Gray said. “In the past two weeks, I have gotten calls from parents saying they can’t send their kids to school because they don’t have clean clothes. So for me, that always breaks my heart – it’s something we need to get a handle on and help them with. Because when [the kids] are at their best and feeling their best, they can give us their best.”
Ms. Gray said she believes the calls are coming in now because Hickman Mills Schools District has a lot of transient families who are able to get by through the warmer seasons without reaching out for assistance. Many of them don’t want labels of “homeless,” so they stay on couches at others’ homes or they stay in hotels.
“We know when you’re in a hotel, access to laundry is harder, especially when you have single-parent homes — the rent to stay in those places, they aren’t setting aside money to go do laundry,” Ms. Gray said. The fact that Ervin Early Learning Center does have such a high transient population as well as so many kids in general, makes it easier for parents to “kind of hide” because there are so many kids in the building.
In her role, Ms. Gray has relationships with the parents, whereas the teachers have the deeper relationship with the students. And because parents are sometimes reluctant to reach out, Ms. Gray calls on the teachers to “be the first line of defense,” alerting her when a they have a child wearing the same clothes multiple days in a row, kids who are continually hungry each morning or who don’t have other necessities, like a coat.
Attendance is huge for Ervin and other Hickman Mills Schools. Ervin’s school day runs 7:20 a.m. – 2:40 p.m., and they regularly have kids coming in at 9 a.m. each day. “We can’t blame the kids — these are babies,” says Ms. Gray. She believes parents, sometimes, don’t see the importance of pre-k and kinder education in establishing social skills and building good habits. “They think, ‘Oh, the kids will get that when they get to first or second grade.’ That’s said in itself.”
Through United Way of Greater Kansas City’s 2018 Loads of Love campaign, Ervin Early Learning Center and other Hickman Mills schools will have the chance to receive a washer and dryer set and laundry supplies in order to help curb absenteeism.
“There are so many layers to it it’s like how do you attack this,” Ms. Gray said. I’m very appreciative of what United Way is doing with Loads of Love because it’s at least one chord we can pluck and see where it resonates and how many barriers we can break down through this initiative.”