Care to Learn eyes year battling poverty in Missouri schools

Friday, August 27, 2010 | 4:32 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD — Springfield children so poor they share a toothbrush.

A fifth-grade boy mocked for wearing his mother's jeans, the only pants he had available.

Teen girls missing class each month because they lack feminine hygiene products.

Those were the images of local poverty that businessman Doug Pitt couldn't shake. The result — with early pledges of help from Brad Pitt, the Jolie-Pitt Foundation and businessman Jim D. Morris — was Care to Learn.

The fund, entering its third school year, is continuing to evolve. This year, there will also be more money earmarked for laundry vouchers, transportation and dental care.

"There is a big population out there that needs our help," said Pitt, who is also co-chair of the Task Force for Homeless Young Children. "We never want a kid to hear no. We've never had to turn down a request."

The homeless population is particularly needy, and Care to Learn frequently receives requests to help those children and teens.

"It's a very transient population," Pitt said. "Some are known, but it's also very secretive. It's hard to find a population that doesn't want to be found."

That's one of the reasons why the fund's anonymity is important. A school official will know the family, but names are not attached to any request.

"It's between the kid and the counselor," Pitt said.

Created in April 2008, the fund has already filled more than 25,000 requests to meet the immediate health, hunger and hygiene needs of students.

Requests have ranged from eyeglasses and gym shoes to backpacks, coats and emergency dental and medical care. In two cases, the help has saved the toe of a student.

"We ask 'Is it keeping a child out of school or is it distracting a kid in the classroom?' " Pitt said. "We fill the need and get them back in the classroom. It's a great resource for teachers."

The Springfield effort has also spawned chapters in Bolivar, Nixa, Ozark and the Ozarks Technical Community College. Expansion into more communities isn't out of the question.

A fund was set up to cover any administrative costs so every donation goes directly to students, Pitt said.

"The need is perpetual," he said. "We want to fill those emergent needs. The thing that has always driven me is the self-esteem issue."

The process is extremely simple.

Families — students or a parent — work closely with teachers, counselors or a school secretary.

Once a critical student need is identified, a phone call is made to Care to Learn and the need is met.

"We get them taken care of today," said Morey Mechlin, executive director of Care to Learn. "We rely on the schools to tell us what they need, and we'll go out and meet those needs."

Mechlin said the needs typically run deeper for homeless children. Sometimes, the major obstacle to receiving medical or dental care is just getting to the appointment.

The requests come from schools all over the district.

This year, Care to Learn Fund has pledged to match up to $10,000 in donations to the Springfield PTA Clothing Bank.

Open to students who qualify for free or reduced price meals, the clothing bank needs new socks, shoes and jeans.

The laundry vouchers will be more plentiful this school year to help families without a washer and dryer. It may also help clothing banks as Care to Learn organizers learned some families without access to laundry facilities would frequent clothing banks to pick up clean clothes.

"They'll have the opportunity to keep the clothes they have clean," Mechlin said. "We can serve their needs."

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