Dumbarton Middle School in Towson will join the nonprofit Student Support Network in September, the organization announced last week.
The move will expand Dumbarton’s ability to offer children living in poverty basic necessities in the school’s “Comfort Closet,” organizers said. It will also provide a way for school staff to seek emergency funding for students’ families to help with anything from rent deposits to field trips.
Shannon Carney, a parent and lead volunteer for the Dumbarton network who is also a school social worker in Baltimore, said the effort will help address poverty that is “hidden in plain sight.”
“I think a lot of people in the school community are shocked to hear that close to 20 percent of students meet the federal criteria for poverty,” Carney said.
Last year, the 1,188-student school had 223 students whose families have a low enough income to be eligible for free or reduced lunch – nearly 20 percent. Of those students, 26 were identified as homeless, Mitchell said.
“We’re really excited about Dumbarton joining,” said Laurie Taylor Mitchell, founder of the Student Support Network. Dumbarton will be the fifth Baltimore County school to join the organization; Mitchell hopes more will come.
“It’s very important to understand that there is poverty in virtually every school in the county,” Mitchell said. “And sometimes that poverty is not visible, but it’s there.”
Members of the Student Support Network, formerly known as the Loch Raven Network, give students in need access to a “Room of Support” stocked with food, clothing, school supplies and other necessities. Students can schedule times with school staff to discreetly access these rooms and shop for what they need.
Carney, who has a child in 7th grade at Dumbarton, said she worked with school staff to start Dumbarton’s Comfort Closet after reading an article about Mitchell in the Towson Times. She put a bin in front of her house and asked people to drop off toiletries and laundry supplies.
“The community response was tremendous, but also the need was surprising,” Carney said.
One reason Carney said people might not know about the needs at Dumbarton is that middle school is a difficult age for students in need. Middle schoolers, desperate to fit in, “will go to great lengths to try to hide or conceal the challenges they may be facing,” she said.
Toni Volpe-Sillars, the staff social worker at Dumbarton, said in addition to the Comfort Closet, the school works with a local church to provide bags of food that students can take home.
Carney said she reached out to Mitchell to tell her she had inspired that project when Mitchell offered to pull Dumbarton into the network. She said that will make stocking the closet easier, because Student Support Network has a central storage space with donated supplies, and will also increase access to emergency funds.
The network also raises funds for other needs, like field trip fees, caps and gowns for graduating seniors, emergency housing and food assistance and beds for homeless students, according to a flier.
Dumbarton will join Loch Raven High School, Parkville High School, Pine Grove Middle School, and Loch Raven Technical Academy in the network.
Volpe-Sillars said some of the greatest needs still unmet are for school supplies, home goods and hygiene products like toothbrushes, deodorant and kitchen sponges.
Though Towson is an affluent area, Volpe-Sillars said an increasing number of families are struggling, as is the case across the county, where the free and reduced-price meals rate climbed from 36.5 percent in 2008-2009 to 43.74 percent in 2018-2019.
“There’s a growing need,” Volpe-Sillars said.