Hungry, poor — Fern Creek still defies the odds

Patrick Galatowitsch knew someone had to speak on behalf of his students. Most are so poor they can't afford their own lunch. Many are homeless.

So with a room full of corporate and political bigwigs, the principal of Fern Creek Elementary School climbed onto the stage of his school's aging auditorium Monday afternoon and told the crowd something they all needed to hear:

Thank you.

That's right … Thank you.

Galatowitsch wasn't there to scold. He was there to offer his appreciation to a growing community of volunteers, corporate partners and caring neighbors who have come together to help this small school defy the odds.

You see, while the statistics suggest Fern Creek shouldn't be doing very well — 84 percent of the kids are on free or reduced lunch, and 20 percent homeless — the reality is very different.

In third grade alone, nearly 90 percent of the kids scored at grade-level or higher on their reading tests. The school had comparable passing rates for math and writing as well.

This, my friends, is what can happen when the proverbial village helps raise a child.

The politicians in Tallahassee may very well continue to short-change students, demonize teachers and make campaign promises they will never fulfill.

But this school of 335 students just north of downtown Orlando is proof that, when many pitch in, great things can happen.

And not just at school.

In fact, in recent years, Fern Creek has gone well beyond helping kids during class hours.

Every Friday, the school provides food to any child who might not otherwise have enough food to eat on the weekend.

The school now has a "boutique" that clothes five families every single week.

And in a few cases, volunteers have even found homes for students without.

Why? Because Galatowitsch knows that kindergartners with hunger pains can't possibly pay attention in class. And a fourth-grader can't possibly be expected to focus on homework when she's worried about where to sleep each night.

Certainly the staff does its part — and more. Many teachers have eschewed opportunities at fancier schools in nicer districts.

But the real difference here is the number of outsiders who are stepping up and getting involved — businesses that provide mentors, artists who volunteer their time to teach dance and music, and lawyers who cut checks.

These are the villagers.

To put the generosity into perspective, consider that more than 25 groups and individuals have written checks of $1,000, $5,000, even $10,000.

They are individuals like Fern and Ivan Lefkowitz, who decided they wanted to help after driving by the school so many times during their daily commute.

They are big companies like Macy's, SeaWorld and Traveler's Insurance, a company that not only stroked a five-figure check, but also donated some of the company's signature big, red umbrellas for students to use on rainy days.

And they are local groups, like Park Lake Presbyterian Church and the Winter Park Health Foundation, which know that charity begins in your own backyard.

Building a coalition like this isn't easy. It took Fern Creek years.

But it paid off. Said Galatowitsch: "It illustrates the importance of working together."

It also makes another point, according to Orange County School Board member Nancy Robbinson, who was in the audience Monday.

"It shows we don't just need money," she said. "We need people who care."

smaxwell@tribune.com or 407-420-6141

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