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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point


How My Public Education Landed Me in a Homeless Shelter

By Holly C. Paulette

They say the great divide begins at the railroad tracks: Once you go under the overpass, you’ve reached the land where failure is expected and school is no longer cool.
Day after day, I watch our kids get dropped off around the corner so their classmates won’t see they’re staying in the homeless shelter. We buzz them into the building, and they enter holding just a folder. Backpacks have become irrelevant because homework is ignored, deemed unnecessary by their parents. The kids throw their things in the room they share with other families and head out the door to some of Roanoke’s meanest streets.
My heart overflows when I walk through the lobby and get attacked by hugs and rounds of “Hi Miss Holly!” It’s not pride that overflows; it’s gratitude that I can be an example of what it looks like to care about school. Each day, I’m reminded how fortunate I was to grow up in an environment in which education mattered.
At the high school I attended, only 9 percent of students qualify for a free lunch, compared to 54 percent at the local high school here. I grew up in western Henrico County, where parents and teachers worked alongside each other to aid students. I can’t recall a single classmate who didn’t make it to graduation or didn’t have screaming fans there as they walked across the stage. Looking back, I was richly blessed by my public education, which is why I feel such a strong tug to homeless ministry. Without a solid home life, it’s nearly impossible to have a solid school life.
When I was in third grade, my school established a contest to see who could accrue the most “points” in an online reading comprehension test. The harder the book, the more points you’d receive. Because I was taught to be concerned with my schooling, and because I was intently serious, I headed straight to the library and hoarded as many “Level 1” books in my L.L. Bean backpack as possible. My mom and dad sat up with me as I devoured dozens of books written for kids younger than me and, within days, I topped the leader board. With cheerleading parents and an atmosphere of enthusiasm for learning, my passion began.
If I’d had parents unconcerned with my education, who rolled their eyes when I had this strong desire to win a reading competition, I would have bashfully stepped back and stifled my excitement. I’d have said, “Yeah, reading is lame,” and my third grade self would have been conditioned to put learning on the back burner.
The kids I have the pleasure of working with now are just like any other kids. They race through the hallways making car horn noises, make up stories of having pet dinosaurs, and marvel at shiny new toys. When offered the opportunity to sit on my lap and read a story, I have a kid on each leg and one over each shoulder.
But there are mornings like the one as I drove kids to summer camp, and one peered up at me and said, “We got kicked out of my aunt’s house two weeks before fifth grade graduation. Does that mean I’ll never finish fifth grade?”
Many people don’t understand how living in poverty hampers success. School is the last thing on Mom’s mind when her electricity is turned off, her car fails inspection, she can’t afford new shoes, her court date is approaching, and the rent is due. Life becomes so chaotic that missing one more day of school seems insignificant. But one day turns into a week, and, before you know it, the dropout rate continues to skyrocket because school is simply not important enough. The culture of poverty screams, “School can wait! This mess can’t!”

These kids’ teachers care about them so much they drop them off at the shelter when Dad forgets to pick them up. I get phone calls most mornings from worried administrators, wanting to make sure the kids came in safe last night. I’m absolutely shocked when those same teachers are sometimes blamed. With little or no support from parents, teachers must feel as though you’re climbing a never-ending hill.

You are making a difference, and your work is not going unnoticed.

I see it in the kindergartener’s eyes as she recites the basic Spanish you’ve taught her each morning. I see it in the macho middle school student who explodes with excitement at his passing test grade. When they sing silly songs learned in music classes, display their artwork on their doors, and go through flashcards while waiting in line for dinner, they are also screaming “thank you.” So are we.

Thank you for investing in a generation being pulled down by the pressure of the streets at an alarming rate. Without your devotion, they would be lost. Because of it, the overpass will no longer define these children. Because of your passion, their passion will shine.

Paulette, a recent graduate of Virginia Tech, works at a homeless shelter in Roanoke.





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