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Homeless — not helpless


At her job as a client service representative at A-TEMP Heating & Cooling in Clackamas is Leigha Christensen — a recent high school graduate and Gateway Project success story. The Parkrose School District’s Gateway Project works with homeless and precariously housed elementary, middle and high school students in the Parkrose School District.
Out of all the students who attend school in the Parkrose School District, 250 of them are either homeless or have unemployed parents and need further assistance. But unlike many students in those situations enrolled in one of Oregon’s other school districts, they still ride to school in a bus, wear clean clothes, and come prepared with school supplies.

The Gateway Project, a Parkrose School District program that provides support to students at the elementary, middle and high school age, makes all of this possible.

Judy Caruso, who is in charge of resource development for the program, said the school district is required by law to provide transportation for homeless students.

The federal government gives Title 1 funding based on the number of students who receive free or reduced lunch. Every Oregon school is required to provide homeless programs. However, the difference in Parkrose is the district wanted to provide further services to keep at-risk students in school.

The Gateway Project received about $3,000 from the federal government last year to provide transportation, but the money ran out in April. Caruso said because of this, the only way the project survives is through donations.

Although she did not reveal the total amount of donations made to the project, Caruso acknowledged several businesses, both local and national, that are big contributors.

She said the Windermere Foundation donated $10,000 to the project last year — enough to provide food, transportation and clothing to nearly 100 students. That number more than triples the amount provided by the state.

“We have some amazing organizations that support us,” Caruso said. “Without them, our program wouldn’t be the way it is.”

When this program started in 2001, there was no outside funding. So Caruso wrote her first grant, to Portland Teacher’s Credit Union, for $1,000. She said she remembers how excited she was when she received the money.

“I thought I had done something so great; I thought I’d conquered the world,” she said.

Since then, Caruso has written countless grants and in turn been offered thousands of dollars in donations. There are currently three grants pending, and a fourth was just approved, which allowed the program to hire a mentor to help high school seniors apply for college and assist them in their search for colleges.

Caruso said one of the main donors to the project is Caruso Produce, which recently donated $500. The money will go toward clothing, snacks, school supplies, sports fees, hair cuts and sports equipment.

Recently the Boeing Company donated $10,000 to the project, recognizing the need to support causes like the Gateway Project.

“The Boeing Company is pleased to be able to provide funding for the Gateway Project, as it is vital for a healthy community to invest in its young people,” Tim Ferris, operations director for Boeing Portland, said. “It is another opportunity for us to give back to our local community and help those who need a little extra support.”

One of the ways the donors help is through providing funding so students can participate in activities outside of school.

“We pay for extracurricular activities, fees, because the state isn’t funding schools at the rate they probably should,” Bob Grovenburg, liaison between the program and state, said. “(We also pay fees for) music programs and athletic programs.”

Grovenburg said it would be possible for the district to pay fees for the students, but he said the school district is already struggling to fund the project, so the program pays for as many of these fees as they can.

Caruso said an important aspect to donations is that all clothing received must be new.

“I don’t want used things for these children,” she said. “I feel that these children are sleeping on someone else’s floor, eating someone else’s food, and it’s about making them feel special. The impact (of having new instead of used clothes) has made such a difference.”

Grovenburg said the self-image of the students matters the most and that it is one of the easiest ways to boost their spirits.

“One of the issues that I think homeless kids have is the issue of their own self-worth and value, and I think it is really hard for kids to come to school when they don’t have clean clothes,” he said. “But if they come and they have school supplies and a set of clean clothes, not only do they know we care about them, but they can fit in with their peers.”

Working with students who come from such backgrounds would seem tiring, Caruso said, but she finds her job rewarding and uplifting, rather than trying.

“Have you ever put a brand new pair of pants on a little boy who has never owned his own pair of pants?” she said. “That’s what keeps me going.”

Grovenburg has been working with students in education for 28 years. He works primarily with middle and high school students but he said one of the hardest parts about his job is when he visits the elementary school aged children.

“The most heartbreaking thing for me is when I get the opportunity to see the kids at the elementary school level knowing that the road to getting help is going to be so long and so hard. It’s hard to not get angry,” he said. “I know there is not a lot of help out there and I know what an absolutely horrible struggle it is for that family.”

And Grovenburg does know exactly how that family feels. Once homeless himself, he said he feels that he can relate to students on that level and share his experiences with them.

“I spent from age 15 to when I was a young adult homeless, so I know what it is like out there and to fend for myself,” he said. “All of the kids know (about it) and I am pretty open with them.”

Acting as a counselor, Grovenburg has students coming in and out of his office constantly. He said of all the things he can do for them, one of the most important things is to listen.

“I think there are a lot of people who do counseling and therapy but they don’t know how to just sit down and listen,” he said. “The other adults in their lives aren’t (always) there to listen to them and with me, I want them to know that I’ve paid attention to them.”

Parkrose Superintendent Michael Taylor knows well how solidly rooted these types of programs are in the district.

Just out of graduate school in the early 80s and in charge of special programs for the LaGrande School District in eastern Oregon, Taylor visited Parkrose at a stop on a tour of Oregon schools with special education programs. He called the Gateway Project — the second or third iteration of that original program — a “very strong program.”

“Part of what helps transitory kids is having this kind of continuing connection to the school,” he said. “Indicators are we see kids continue to avail themselves of these programs throughout their years in the district.”

Leigha Christensen, 19, said that when she was going through her toughest times, Grovenburg was always there to listen.

“(Grovenburg) himself has changed my life. I have never met anyone like him,” she said. “I doubt that I would be in the same position I am now without him.”

Because of the bond Grovenburg builds with students, he said he rarely finds a student who does not keep in touch after graduation. Many of the students must find jobs after high school in order to support themselves, and as a result they are still in the area.

“When seniors walk out the door here, they get my home phone number. I want them to stay in touch with me,” he said. “For a lot of kids on the homeless list, they don’t have a lot of family, and I’m not going to be someone who shoves them out the door and says this is just a job, because everybody needs an adult in their lives to talk to.”

For Christensen, going straight from high school to a full-time job was her only option. By the time she graduated, Christensen had already been living on her own for two years and was accustomed to supporting herself.

With an alcoholic and drug addict mother and a father in prison, Christensen said she was forced to grow up quickly. Until she moved out on her own during her junior year, she bounced from couch to couch. When she was a sophomore, Christensen started using drugs and alcohol, something she vowed she would never do.

“It was pretty bad,” she said. “But I told myself I needed help, and that’s what the Gateway Project did. I could have stayed and died, but instead I chose to stay and live.”

Christensen said she wouldn’t have stayed in school if it hadn’t been for the Gateway Project. She started receiving help from the project in sixth grade, when her father went to prison. Then, when she was a freshman, the project provided free bus passes so she could travel to and from school. School supplies and clothing were also given to her as she got older, and when she was forced to move out on her own at 16, the project helped her pay rent when she couldn’t get enough hours at work. “It was so tough, being 16 and trying to have a life, trying to stay clean and sober, and trying to manage my life and deal with family issues all at the same time,” she said.

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