I was recently standing in line at Target behind a family buying school supplies. When I heard them remark that their total bill topped $300, it made me stop and think of the vulnerable and homeless families we serve at Facets, a nonprofit providing comprehensive housing programs and services in Fairfax. For these folks, back-to-school season can mean a difficult choice between paying for utilities or school supplies. With 1,700 homeless people in Fairfax --the majority of whom are children -- this unfortunately is the reality for too many neighbors.
First days of school are very exciting for children and their parents, and new clothes and school supplies are often a rite of passage. But for families living on the brink or without a home, this season can be a stressful burden as students need a variety of supplies, lunch boxes, school pictures, fees for school activities, aftercare, sports fees and equipment -- the list goes on. Academic and afterschool involvement requires significant resources, time and transportation that the parents we serve at Facets simply don't have.
For families overwhelmed by meeting the most basic of needs, the stress of getting children ready for school -- often a new one, if they are homeless -- is unimaginable. For children, being unsettled and feeling different or embarrassed that they have no home and limited means can really shake their confidence. The good news is that many local nonprofits, schools, churches, volunteers and companies, work hard to smooth the way for our neighbors in need.
In fact, through the efforts of many generous donors and volunteers, we recently hosted several back-to-school parties for children at local community centers where Facets works. The parties were more about a way to make going back to school fun and less about feeling scared. Even more striking than the smiles on the children's faces as they picked out their backpacks were the looks of relief on their parents' faces. To lessen the first-day jitters of kids and adults alike, students left our parties with new backpacks filled with needed supplies, allowing them to get a strong and worry-free start to their academic year.
Back-to-school supplies are of course only one part of the equation that helps families become self-sufficient. Wrap-around resources are critical components of helping families get back onto stable ground. One of Facets' client families -- Michele, her husband and their four daughters -- were forced into an Alexandria motel several years ago after a history of poor credit had prevented them from securing housing, despite Michele being employed.
We worked with Michele on budget planning, so she was able to begin paying down some of the family's debt. Still, because of her husband Wayne's medical problems, a large portion of the family's income went toward medications and gas money to get him to dialysis. Supplementing the family's budget with food, toiletries, an occasional gas voucher and back-to-school supplies helped, and with the hand up, Michele, Wayne and the girls are in a stable housing situation, the girls are doing well in school and the family is well on their way to self-sufficiency.
Michele's situation is not unlike many of the families we encounter, especially as the economy continues to take a toll on our community. In addition to helping them get a stable, fixed address, we provide mentoring and tutoring for children and offer afterschool educational and recreational programs that raise their self-esteem and encourage their desire to learn. With a little support, counseling and encouragement, homeless families and their children face a much brighter future.
But for children and teens, it's the small stuff that counts, and nothing beats starting off the school year feeling like they are all on the same level playing field. Thanks to the generosity of many, our children with no fixed addresses now face the school year feeling right at home.
Amanda Andere, executive director, FACETS