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How a nonprofit turned Baltimore County school storage rooms into a free general store for students in need

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

A drive to help families in need at a local school began in 2015 with a pink, polka-dotted rain boot perched on a front stoop.

Today, it is a nonprofit that takes in more than a $100,000 a year in cash and donations to support the needs of students and families in more than five Baltimore County schools.

The Student Support Network has provided thousands of students with big and little bits of help, from after school snacks to new underwear to mattresses to sleep on. In each of the five schools an extra room — sometimes a storage room — has been transformed into a general store where everything is free to needy families and students. The network is now located in Parkville and Loch Raven high schools, Pine Grove Elementary and Loch Raven Technical Academy. This fall, the pantry will open at Dumbarton Middle School.

“It has been a lot of help to a lot of children,” said Parkville’s school nurse, Christine Ratych.

At the Parkville High School, a room that once housed janitorial supplies now overflows with labeled plastic bins, shelves, and clothing on racks. There’s bedding, nonperishable food, Pop Tarts, noodles, soup cans, beans and rice. Feminine hygiene products fill two large plastic containers. Deodorant, lip balm, and other items considered precious to teenagers are neatly lined up on the shelves.

Parkville has more than 2,000 students; about a quarter of them are immigrants not fluent in English. About 200 students are considered homeless because they have no stable place to live. The school has a nurse, three police officers called school resource officers, a social worker and a pupil personnel worker, who deals with attendance and discipline issues. What the school doesn’t have is enough money to buy life’s basics for students who need a little help.

“All the social issues our families are dealing with, there just aren’t resources for,” said Roxann Anderson, a pupil personnel worker. When she finds a homeless family or one with great financial stress, she knows the network can help. When she had a pregnant student who gave birth early, the Student Support Network put out a call to donors for help. Soon Anderson was walking into the student’s home with eight bags full of diapers, clothing and other necessities.

“I took it over to the house and they were beside themselves,” she said.

Nurse Ratych said the school’s staff knows where to go when there’s a need. She has delivered tables, chairs, bedding and mattresses to the families of students, she said. The outreach has helped build trust among families, who are grateful for the support.

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The network began with education activist and former Baltimore County public school parent Laurie Taylor Mitchell in 2015. Researching poverty statistics in Baltimore County she came upon a fact that made her jaw drop.

“There were 300 students at Loch Raven High school who were in poverty. That was blocks from my house,” Mitchell said. She posted a plea on her neighborhood message board for four volunteers who would give time and money to help her supply five families with food and gifts around the holidays.

In 13 days there were 125 volunteers. She put the pink boot on her front porch. Hundreds of dollars were dropped in. Thousands of dollars more arrived in gifts and food items. “That really changed my life. It made me realize there was tremendous need in our community. And once people knew of that need they responded incredibly generously.”

Working with Loch Raven High School staff, she helped set up a room to handle supplies. The network gradually expanded to new schools.

But in a school system where more than 40 percent of students are low-income enough to qualify for a free or subsidized lunch, the network extends beyond its own schools. Each spring and fall, the it holds a one day donation drive on a weekend, putting out a list of items that are needed so they are not flooded with supplies that can’t be used. Mitchell said they will take gently used items, including bedding, shoes, coats and athletic wear, but they were so inundated with used clothing that they had to stop accepting it.

Besides helping to restock the pantries, representatives from other schools across the district are invited to come pick up what they need. For instance, on one donation day, staff from other schools arrived to pick up $350 worth of socks and underwear, as well as school supplies and food.

Mitchell said the network tries to respond quickly to any need. It paid two days of hotel bills to keep a family from being evicted from the hotel where they lived, buying time for the next paycheck to arrive. When a student earned a full scholarship to college but didn’t have the money to pay the deposit, the network stepped in. When a mother who had been homeless arrived to an empty apartment with no furniture, the network delivered air mattresses and bedding within three days.

Loch Raven High School Principal Janine Holmes said her staff goes to great lengths to make sure that students who receive help retain their privacy. “We do a lot to make them feel comfortable,” she said.

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The same is true at Parkville, where the staff has set up a section of lockers off the beaten path, so students can pick up a backpack of food to take home. That gives them three meals a day over the weekends when they can’t rely on school breakfasts and lunches. Selected students know the locker combinations and can come by at their convenience without anyone noticing. With the help of a local church, staff refill the lockers every week with new backpacks full of supplies.

The network has made a difference in many students lives, but school officials said it has also impacted the school’s culture and discipline.

“We will hear from students that knowing that school has these resources makes them feel like they have a supportive school,” said Holmes. While the school can’t take away the stress of poverty and homelessness, at least students know “there are people that care about them and are there to help them.”

Parkville’s police officers, known as school resource officers, have known the value of food for years. Officer Reginald Buie has three file drawers full of food in his office, as do his fellow officers on other floors. Students come by every day to grab from the officers’ stashes, nearly all supplied by the network. While many of the kids get free school meals, the serving sizes are too small for growing teenage boys.

“I refuse to let a child go hungry,” Buie said. After students realize there is free food, they flock to their offices.

There’s another benefit to keeping students around the office. “It allows us to build a relationship. For those who don’t like the police it allows them to see they can trust the police,” he said.

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When problems arise in school, the officers are more likely to get information from students, and students are more likely to come to them for help. A robbery was solved recently from information the officers got within the school. Buie said the officers try to teach students better coping mechanisms so they don’t get into trouble. He told one student not to take it out on a teacher when he got angry, but to come to his office. One day the student came in and began hitting the walls.

Mitchell hopes to continue expanding the network to 25 schools, by adding a couple of schools a year. The organization, which has a board of unpaid volunteers, is now ready to hire an executive director, leaving time for Mitchell to do advocacy work.

In the meantime, she’s still getting donations. Recently, she spent the day sorting through boxes of office supplies that a company left at her front door. What’s useful will go out to the schools.

The pink boot? It’s still around and something of an icon, according to Mitchell.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lizbowie

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