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Team Targets ‘Anything That Might Impede Education’

Helping Rural Families Overcome Barriers to Services

“I am not that person holding a sign on the busy street corner and I don’t sleep under the bridge. But, I am homeless.”

Students in rural Kent County schools may never use those words, but community resource coordinators Jennifer Willette and Jodi West likely know who they are.

“Housing-challenged is not really considered homeless — but in effect they are,” Willette said. “Neighbors helping neighbors is a great thing, but it isn’t enough. Many literally do not have a place to put their heads.”

“They may be living with another family, moving from house to house or at a campground, a motel, or even in a car,” added West.

These Kent School Services Network coordinators — Willette serving at Cedar View and Red Hawk elementary schools and West at Cedar Springs Middle School — are on the lookout for “anything that might impede education,” said West.

Figuring out why a child may be extra-tired during the school day, helping a family find community resources for affordable clothing and food, or setting up mental health services are all part of the coordinators’ day.

“Relationship is huge,” said West. She and Willette hang out with the students as they enter the building in the morning and eat lunch with them. They also rely on networking with teachers and other staff, who can provide important information such as sudden changes in a child’s attitude or ability to concentrate.

Appreciating Community Servants

by Morgan Jarema

In recognition of the role they play in connecting schools with the neighborhoods they serve, Sept. 25-29 has been designated as Community School Coordinators Appreciation Week. The recognition is an effort of the Coalition of Community Schools, Communities In Schools, the National Center for Community Schools at the Children’s Aid Society, the Beacon National Network, and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thirty-four Kent Schools Services Network community school coordinators currently work in 40 schools representing 21,000 students in eight Kent County districts, plus the student programs at Kent ISD. Coordinators bring health and human services into the school building to help students and families.

KSSN partners with Arbor Circle, D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s, and Family Outreach Center to staff site team clinicians for onsite mental health services. It also works with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services of Kent County and Spectrum Health Healthier Communities to provide nurses, health aides, and success coaches who help families gain self-sufficiency and get needed services.

This year, KSSN is working with Ottawa Area ISD, Coopersville Public Schools, Holland Public Schools and Zeeland Public Schools to expand the community school model into Ottawa County school districts.

Related Story: ‘I Get How Hard It Is’: Personal Challenges Inform Coordinator’s Aid to Families

Community Contacts Crucial

Relationships with community partners such as service organizations and area churches is also important to the job. Recently one phone call to a church quickly resulted in seven beds for a family that the coordinators had discovered was without furniture.

“Without a bed, the students were not coming to school rested enough to do their work,” West said.

Cedar Springs has long recognized a need for servicing the whole child. District facilities include the Cherry Health Clinic, a Department of Human Services office, and services from North Kent Connect, formerly North Kent Community Services. This summer, Mel Trotter Ministries teamed with the school district to provide outreach services to homeless families.

Access to services is often very difficult for rural families.

“Even the statistics don’t tell the whole story,” said West. “Our families don’t get downtown to register, and so statistics show that the percentage of homelessness in northern Kent County is zero.”

But the reality is that by mid-September, the coordinators knew of at least 45 students who were in a housing-challenged situation. Close ties with area service and religious groups aid in finding emergency shelter and more permanent housing.

Other services urban residents take for granted, such as visiting DHS for food assistance programs or tending to Medicaid issues, are not easily accessed in rural areas.

“Having a DHS office here has been a godsend for so many of our residents,” said Willette. “They can do a lot online or by phone, but sometimes things only get resolved in person.”

Gaining Students’ Trust

Even finding transportation to fresh and affordable food is a challenge for many, said West: “They can get a bag of chips or a drink at Wesco or crackers at the Dollar General, but the closest place for (groceries) for their families is Save-A-Lot and that isn’t within walking distance of places like Cedar Springs Mobile Estates.”

Getting to know the students allows the coordinators to help their families. “We are so grateful to be able to do that,” Willette said.

Both West and Willette have found that the longer they work with KSSN, the more effective the impact. Sometimes students reach out to them after learning they helped another family. “And when the students trust us, they are less afraid to ask for help,” said West.

Area services available for rural families keep improving.

In addition to the Cherry Health facility located on campus, the Kent County Health Department recently opened a dental clinic in Cedar Springs. The coordinators also are able to refer students and their families to mental health services if needed. And North Kent Connect has joined forces with the school to aid with clothing, basic household and clothing needs.

Recently there also have been discussions about a local church teaming with Mel Trotter Ministries to potentially open an emergency housing center as part of its new outreach to the area.

“It is so special to make an impact in the community where I grew up and live,” West said. “We just want to make Cedar Springs the best community it can be.”


Poverty Persists Out in the Country, Out of Sight

Mel Trotter addresses problem of rural poverty

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst
Janice Holst is a reporter covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio or email Janice.


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