Gateway: News

For new kids at school, a pal with snacks, hugs and spare shoes

Laura Unger works out of a tiny office packed with snacks, extra clothes, games, and calming toys. It’s a comforting place that draws Harbor Heights Elementary kids in for a quick hug — and a checkout.

Homework done? Yes, Ms. Unger. Shoes fit? Yes, Ms. Unger. Got enough to eat? Yes, Ms. Unger.

Unger, 50, isn’t a teacher, although she used to be one. She’s the onsite coordinator at the Gig Harbor school for Communities in Schools Peninsula, a nonprofit in partnership with the school district. Her job is making sure the kids their have whatever they need to stay in school and succeed.

“I try to connect with the kids who are struggling,” she said. “There are kids who come to school hungry, there are kids who have trouble with homework, who struggle with English, there are even kids who are basically homeless.”

She has a caseload of about 60 children, and she checks on each one of them, every day.

“I want them to know that there is someone who cares, who is watching out for them,” she said.

Earlier this month, Unger was honored by Communities in Schools with a national award for her six years of work at Harbor Heights. Chosen from among 2,500 site coordinators nationwide, she was recognized at an event in Chicago.

The award was called “All In for Students,” and it delighted Unger’s colleagues.

“Lara is all heart when it comes to the kids she works with,” said Colleen Speer, executive director of CIS Peninsula. “She is passionate about equalizing opportunities for students on her caseload despite the challenges they face.”

Harbor Heights, on its hill above Wollochet Bay, is unusual. It gathers together students from some of the richest families in Gig Harbor, and from the poorest.

“We have affluent families from the big houses on the water, and we have apartment kids who are couch-surfing because their mom’s been evicted,” she said. “You can really tell the haves from the have-nots.”

People are surprised to find such contrasts in Gig Harbor, she said.

Harbor Heights has the largest percentage of English-language learners in the Peninsula School District, Unger said. The largest group are native Spanish-speakers. But there are also kids who speak French, Arabic — even, in one case, Fijian.

“School is hard enough for any kid, but when you don’t speak the language, it can be bewildering,” she said.

Unger meets before school begins at 8 a.m. daily with her English-language learners, helping with homework, with new words, with conversation, just helping them to be comfortable in the new language.

Throughout the day, she draws students aside for a hug or a word or two of encouragement — but also with an eye out for the broken shoe, the worn-out t-shirt, the one kid with no coat on a cold day.

“Shoes are the biggest thing,” she says. “They grow out of them so fast, and if you only have one pair, and you’re running around in them all day as kids do, they wear out fast, too.”

She used to give out hand-me downs. Now, in a partnership with Gig Harbor Kiwanis, she’s able to supply the kids with new shoes and coats.

“That really helps, when their peers are in Nikes and all the designer stuff,” she said. “We’re closing that gap.”

At recess, Unger gathers “friendship groups” of kids who socialize with games, and there are other groups for kids who have social-emotional problems.

“Recess can be a hard time for kids, if you have no one to play with,” she said. “In our friendship groups, we talk about how to make friends, how to be a good friend, how to treat other people. We do games and learn to cooperate.”

Classroom teachers tip her off when a child has come to school hungry, or there are problems at home. Sometimes she works directly with families.

“I try to do anything,” she said. “Even finding furniture, finding them an affordable place to stay.” Recently she helped a family evicted after the landlord raised the rent. It’s a growing problem, she said, as the apartment market tightens.

Several years ago, Unger started an International Culture Night, which bring families together to celebrate their heritage, languages, and the successes of their children. More than 60 families participated at the first one in 2014, and the event has grown to include additional elementary schools in the district.

“My ultimate goal is for every student and family who walks through the school doors to feel loved and accepted,” Unger said. “This event brings a sense of comfort, pride, and belonging to all who participate.”

Lara Unger graduated with a BA in communications from Washington State University and a MA in teaching from Whitworth University in Spokane. She worked 4 years as an elementary school teacher in the Renton district before taking time off to raise her family. She and her husband Chris have been married for 24 years and they have 3 children. She spends her free time outdoors hiking, trail running, or skiing.

“Lara’s sensibility to different cultures, multiple languages, and understanding of the challenges that parents are facing in this community has made a tremendous difference in improving outcomes for students at Harbor Heights Elementary,” said Speer of CIS Peninsula. “Whatever the need, Lara goes above and beyond.”