New backpacks given to homeless, needy students in Wilkinsburg


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Nicole Smith was still figuring out how she would pay for school uniforms for her daughters, Niree, 11, and Shantia, 8, when she received a phone call from Velma Parker, Wilkinsburg School District homeless liaison.

The call was to tell her about a backpack and food giveaway sponsored by Community Life, an elder care and independent living program. The nonprofit donated more than 30 backpacks filled with school supplies for some district students Friday afternoon.

Staci Kaczkowski, outreach coordinator and spokeswoman for the Wilkinsburg branch of Community Life, said the organization was looking for a service project through its Community Benefit Initiative when she came across the Web page for Wilkinsburg’s Families in Transition program. The program serves the district’s homeless students, which make up almost a third of the student population.

More than 30 students and over a dozen parents showed up at Ms. Parker’s office in the district administrative building on Wallace Avenue Friday morning. Together, they walked to the Community Life building several blocks away. Families ate a catered meal while students decorated face masks with pompoms, glitter and beads with some of the senior citizens under a large tent erected outside the facility.

The families were then brought inside, where excited students peered into backpacks full of brand new pencils, pens, markers, lined paper, folders and other school supplies. Each student also was given a toiletry bag and nonperishable food items to take home.

Without the drive, Ms. Smith said, there was no way she could have afforded the brand new supplies her daughters received in addition to their school uniforms, and reminded them several times to thank event coordinators.

"They were very welcoming,” she said. “I'm so glad that [Ms. Parker] called us because I never would've found out otherwise. Not a lot of communities still do stuff like that, still care."

While she works part time at Shadyside Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Ms. Smith said Ms. Parker helped her get uniforms for her daughters when they first moved to the district in October.

Ms. Parker said the program primarily serves homeless students, but is meant to assist “any family that has a great need.” One of her roles, she said, is to help people understand the scope of homelessness, and how it can range from families living in a shelter to those moving in with family members or friends because they can’t afford to live on their own anymore.

“Some students have five or six new addresses in the course of one school year, but they have some sort of stability because they have the district and a support system to turn to,” she said. “My principals and teachers are my eyes and ears on the ground. Sometimes they'll call me and will be like 'Oh my goodness, I have a kid here without a zipper on his coat,' and we can make accommodations for that."

Ms. Kaczkowski said Community Life hopes to forge a yearlong partnership with the Families in Transition program, including piloting an after-school mentoring program with the senior citizens and adopting secondary students for Christmas.

"Being able to increase our reach to the kids as an intergenerational thing means a lot to us,” she said. "Next year, we really want to work with the district to find out what they need. We’re in this for the long haul."

Of the 15 backpacks that remained after the drive, Ms. Parker had already given away three to new students in the district as of Monday morning.

"I think the kids just had fun,” Ms. Kaczkowski. “A couple asked if they were at a fair. And that's really all we wanted for them."

Clarece Polke: cpolke@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1889.


Clarece Polke: cpolke@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1889. Twitter: @clarepolke

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