Image: High school senior, Alaia with Foundation Executive Director Nada Wheelock and Family-Community Resource Coordinator, Chelsea Unger.
Transforming a Student’s Life
For many teens it can be difficult to ask for help. For 17-year-old Vancouver Public Schools (VPS) student, Alaia, who grew up being told “money doesn’t grow on trees,” lack of adequate food, clothing, and school supplies was an accepted way of life. “Not having what I needed made me feel less,” Alaia says. Her life was transformed thanks to her high school’s Family-Community Resource Center (FCRC) and the meaningful support from the on-site coordinator, Chelsea.
How can students focus on learning when they lack the basic necessities to be successful? Recognizing these challenges, VPS created FCRCs in 18 of its highest-poverty schools along with two-mobile units to support the remaining schools. With funding from the Foundation for VPS and support from community partners, FCRCs offer a single source for resources such as food, clothing, housing support, and access to medical services. They also serve as a safe, accepting place for students to gather and provide activities to expand parent involvement.
Alaia often didn’t have what she needed to be prepared for school. Her mother, a single parent, works the graveyard shift to provide for her three children. A series of mounting bills, including medical expenses and college loans, put Alaia’s family under extreme financial stress. Eventually, she stopped asking her mom for her needs.
Because their mom worked nights, Alaia and her siblings learned to be self-sufficient. Throughout elementary and middle school, Alaia continued to struggle with feelings of inadequacy due to a lack of basic needs. The daily strain meant Alaia was often late for school. During her freshman year, Alaia started skipping school with her friends. “I wasn’t motivated to go to school,” she says. “I didn’t eat breakfast very often because there wasn’t food at home. Maybe a Pop-Tart here and there. My friends often shared their lunch with me. I was afraid to let teachers know that I was hungry or needed school supplies.”
“I was walking the path laid out for me by poverty, but one day in my freshman year, I walked into the FCRC with a friend.”
They were hungry, and the friend knew they could get a free snack. That decision changed the trajectory of Alaia’s life.
“Chelsea told me: ‘Everything you need, we’re here to give it to you.’ I started coming into the FCRC for snacks every day, but I found so much more than a snack. I’d get clothing and counseling because of the safe vibe. And I found community. I started learning to ask for what I needed. I learned that people do care about me. I started speaking out. I realized I wanted to come to school. This one little noon snack changed my life. Now that I was getting help, the fog cleared. I started being able to see my peers and how many were hungry.”
Alaia thought she was the only student going through these challenges. However, more than 48 percent of VPS students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a federal indicator of poverty. “Teachers expect kids to have a normal family situation, but that’s really not the case for about half of the kids,” she said.
Reflecting on her first experiences with the FCRC, Alaia recalls, “It’s one of the first times I’ve felt loved and cared for. I went from being resentful to super grateful. I started projecting gratitude to others. If I see somebody who’s hungry, I say, ‘Go to Chelsea.’ Since my freshman year, I’ve seen the number of kids going to the FCRC grow exponentially. Kids come in and say, ‘Is Chelsea here? I’m hungry.’ Or ‘I’m having a bad day.’ Kids recognize the FCRC as a safe space for people to realize their potential and feel powerful. The FCRC is a respectful place where we can be ourselves and ask for the resources we need to be successful. Students are managing themselves and sending people who have needs to Chelsea.”
Before she connected with her school’s FCRC, she said, “I was resentful toward the world for everything that had happened to me. In high school, I have grown up. I realize that I have experienced a lot of trauma, but I am resilient.”
“I wasn’t going to graduate, but now I am.”
Alaia was recently honored with a Rotary Club of Vancouver scholarship. She has applied to Clark College and dreams of attending Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland to study video journalism.