COLUMBIA — Jennifer Boyer is part of two worlds. As the counselor at New Haven Elementary School, she helps at least one student from a low-income family per week with items such as school supplies, food or clothing. More than half of the school's students are considered to be in need financially.
Boyer also works as the counselor at Mill Creek Elementary School, which has the smallest number of low-income families in the district.
The Upscale Resale shop uses some of the money it makes selling a range of donated items to buy new clothes for Operation School Bell.
Hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. The shop is in the Broadway Shopping Center, 1729 W. Broadway. The phone number is 445-4803.
A list of what sells well can be found on the nonprofit Assistance League of Mid-Missouri's webpage, almm.org.
Also, schools will generally welcome donations of children's clothing that is lightly used, clean and age-appropriate.
Fall 2011 enrollment data for Columbia Public Schools shows that about 57 percent of New Haven's 302 students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch through the National School Lunch Program. School districts nationwide use this qualification to measure the level of poverty in schools. Slightly more than 12 percent of Mill Creek's 844 students qualified; almost 39 percent of students qualified districtwide.
Lack of proper clothing is a major issue at New Haven. Boyer said requests for clothing assistance have almost doubled from last year. She said it's important for students to have proper clothing for school because it increases their confidence in the classroom.
"They might not speak out if they don't feel comfortable," Boyer said. "There are probably kids that don't come to school because their clothes aren't clean."
She said that even though student needs are far greater at New Haven, Mill Creek "definitely has pockets" of it.
Helping students in need is taking an increasing amount of Boyer's time, she said. Although she wants to help as best she can, she said she's trained as a counselor, not a social worker.
"It's been frustrating, just because I can't always help," she said. "The responsibility has been put on me, but I don't have the background to know what to do, so I'm just feeling my way and hoping I don't make a mistake."
An increase in need — and assistance
This year 64 New Haven students were provided clothing and shoes from charitable organizations through the school, Boyer said. That's an increase from 35 students last year.
"In the past year, two years, our needs have really increased," Boyer said. "We've had quite a few students lose their homes. Especially where we're located, we've had a lot of trailer parks close." The school is on New Haven Road in southeast Columbia.
Luckily, Boyer said, Operation School Bell became more available to those students. Since 1996, the local branch of national Operation School Bell has provided new clothing to children in need in the Columbia school district. Last year, the program helped more than 1,300 students, said Barbara Trabue, vice president of philanthropic programs for the Assistance League of Mid-Missouri, which runs the program.
Operation School Bell was able to allot New Haven two shopping times this year instead of one so that more students could be served, Boyer said.
Students who are approved for help through Operation School Bell take a trip together to the league's Upscale Resale shop on Broadway to pick out about $150 worth of new clothing each, Trabue said. Students do not have to pay for the clothing.
Volunteer personal shoppers accompany the students as they pick out three shirts, a fleece sweatshirt, two pairs of pants, or a skirt and a pair of pants, socks, underwear, gloves and a winter coat, Trabue said. The league buys these clothes from stores such as Gap Kids and the Children's Place with the money it makes selling donations at Upscale Resale.
Operation School Bell runs from September through early November, before the weather starts to get cold, Trabue said. The program is meant to ensure students have appropriate clothing for the winter months.
"The kids are just so excited — they love having the opportunity to pick out the things they like and look the same as the rest of the kids," she said. "Sometimes with these kids, it's the only new clothes they'll ever get."
It's a fun time to work at the shop, and one of the times the Assistance League of Mid-Missouri doesn't have to ask for volunteers. Most are happy to sign up for several shifts, Trabue said.
"You get a lot of warm fuzzies back from the kids," she said.
A new strategy
Until this year, New Haven teachers referred students they thought could use help to Boyer. This led to what she called "a sticky situation" because the referral system was based on perceived need rather than actual need.
"When it was Operation School Bell time, I would send out an email," Boyer said. "Some teachers wouldn't tell me any names; some would tell me a ton of names. It was a difficult process. It was very painful because it was making judgments."
However, an idea Boyer got from Cedar Ridge Elementary School counselor Lillian Hoell streamlined the process of providing for students and creating a more accurate picture of overall need.
At the beginning of each school year, Cedar Ridge sends out a letter to families, asking parents to rank the things they need help providing for their children, such as clothing, shoes and school supplies.
Boyer adopted the method. After receiving parents' responses, she created a spreadsheet and decided who got what.
"I rank the things they want, and I try to give them their first choice," Boyer said. "Everyone gets something they ask for."
In Hoell's first year as counselor at Cedar Ridge, she asked teachers to recommend students for assistance. She learned the hard way it's not an easy process. She said it was difficult to tell which children needed clothing, since many start the school year with some new clothes.
"I did this because that is what I understood that other people did," she said. "It puts teachers in an awkward position."
Also that first year, one parent was offended that the school had offered the program to his family.
"He felt like we were saying his children looked like they weren't being cared for," Hoell said. "After talking to him, a few of us brainstormed what we could do to avoid situations like that in the future."
Boyer said some parents took issue with New Haven's new distribution process this year.
"I've had some parents come in who were very upset because they had help with something in the past and didn't get it this year — that's a difficult conversation to have," Boyer said. "But I tell them I have a three-sheet-long list of kids who are in need, and I can't give it to everybody."
Hoell said she can usually help every family who requests assistance because of Cedar Ridge's relatively small size. Fifty-seven percent of the school's 192 students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, according to fall data. This year, 38 students at Cedar Ridge requested clothing assistance, down from last year's 50.
"The number changes some because of mobility — the kids who need more assistance often move more — and what our families are experiencing at the time," Hoell said. "I think our numbers have been relatively steady, with a dip this year."
Mary Carroll, the counselor at Parkade Elementary School, tackles student need in a different way. With Parkade's fall enrollment of 463, the school can't offer assistance to every family, she said. Instead, the school sends out a letter to families whose children qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, which was about 65 percent of the student body.
"It's a place to start for us," Carroll said. "Not all families really need assistance with clothing, and they'll tell us they don't need it. Even if they're on free and reduced lunch, they're able to provide clothing for their kids."
This year, 130 to 140 families requested assistance, Carroll said. She said that although this was consistent with the previous year, the student population has decreased from the previous year.
"There may have been an increase (in need) if that hadn't happened," she said.
The people who help
Boyer said some of New Haven's teachers donate their own children's hand-me-downs to students in need. Speech pathologist Laura Hayes said she and many other teachers throughout the district bring in used clothing for their students.
"As educators, we're the first individuals to come in contact with families in need," Hayes said. "If we have extra of something, we should make it available."
Hayes usually brings in clothing about once a year as it becomes colder outside. Recently, she brought a pair of her fourth-grade daughter's sneakers to school for the taking. Her daughter had outgrown them, she said, but they were still in good shape. A lot of times, she said, clothing teachers bring ends up in bins in the nurse's office.
"There have been instances where I knew a kid was in need and they were growing fast, so we put the clothes in a neutral spot and invited them to 'go shopping,' so to speak," Hayes said.
Carroll said people do sometimes drop off clothing donations at Parkade. Recently, a parent brought in an extra pair of tennis shoes her child wasn't using.
Boyer said she's not aware that anyone has donated directly to New Haven, but donations would be accepted.
Hayes said it's hard for some parents to make it to thrift stores to get inexpensive clothes for their kids because they must work full time in addition to parenting. Teachers should do what they can to help, she said.
"I don't think it's anything spectacular — I think we do it because we're here to teach and we're here to help," Hayes said. "It's just being generous in a world that's maybe not so generous."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.