Help needed to send homeless to college
Chalaia Smith is determined to become something more than a statistic.
“There’s a stereotype with homeless youth – that we are all troublemakers, that we’ll always be homeless,” said the graduating Foss High School senior. Smith has other ideas. The 18-year-old is headed to Washington State University, with her eye on a career in veterinary medicine.
To help Tacoma students like her make the transition, a new community project called Off to College collected items they will need – everything from laptop computers to laundry bags.
The project began as part of a leadership development program sponsored by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber and Pacific Lutheran University.
As the school year comes to a close, about 45 homeless youths are on track to graduate from Tacoma Public Schools. Sixteen of them have plans for college.
Tammy Brown of the United Way of Pierce County said this year’s Off to College goal was to equip those 16 students with materials and supplies they’ll need next fall. In addition to big-ticket items such as laptops, the project has gathered practical things needed for dorm rooms: bedding, storage bins, even alarm clocks.
Brown deemed the project a success, but noted that a handful of students who had requested laptops still don’t have them. The campaign is accepting laptops, or cash donations for laptop purchases, Brown said.
Smith and another Tacoma student, Brooke Bartels, spoke recently to the Tacoma School Board about their experiences as homeless students.
Bartels, 18, is graduating from Mount Tahoma High and will attend Tacoma Community College. She was employed at a job where she had to close up nightly, then be on time for school the next morning.
“I push myself every single day,” she said.
Smith, who wound up homeless after the death of her grandmother, said she wished there had been a way for homeless high school students to get together and share their experiences.
“You don’t let your story be an excuse,” she said. Rather, she said, that story can be what drives students to succeed.
Students identified as homeless under federal law include any student who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate night-time residence.
They can be students who are sharing housing with other families, living in motels, trailer parks, campgrounds, shelters or safe houses for domestic violence victims, residing in substandard housing or awaiting placement in a foster home.
Students classified as homeless under the law have the right to remain in their school, even if they move from the attendance area. The school district must provide transportation. Or students can enroll in a new neighborhood school where they live temporarily.
Under the federal definition, there were 685 homeless students in Tacoma schools as of January 2012.
Brown is gearing up for next year’s Off to College campaign.
“I’d like to expand beyond the Tacoma School District,” she said. “The ultimate goal is to go county-wide.”
WANT TO HELP?
Off to College needs a few more laptops loaded with the student version of Office software to fully equip this year’s homeless student graduates.
You can send a donation, or drop off the hardware and software. (New laptops only, please.)
Or, you can donate to next year’s campaign.
Make checks payable to United Way of Pierce County. Note that it’s for the OTCC (Off to College Campaign).
United Way of Pierce County
1501 Pacific Ave./ 4th floor
Tacoma, WA 98402
More information: Call 253-272-4263.