November 14, 2019

North Country group taking on poverty

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
mary wills people project
Caption: Mary Wills (standing) of the People Project is a retired member of Ogdensburg Education Association. Photo by Andrew Watson.

In Gouverneur, the district provides transportation for parents to attend school events. In Massena, block scheduling was brought back and every first period is devoted to character education, games and building self worth. In Morristown, after-school programs feature busing and food. Many North Country educators and activists have set up school-based food pantries and clothes and hygiene supply closets.

The People Project, a program of the American Federation of Teachers and NYSUT, along with a host of community, civic and school-based groups, recently sponsored a daylong forum on poverty to explore how to best help the poor, the homeless and families in distress in this St. Lawrence County region filled with small towns, colleges, sprawling land and a dearth of industry. One-third of the population earns less than $15,000 a year.

“Sometimes you just don’t know what’s available to you,” said People Project coordinator and retired Ogdensburg Education Association member Mary Wills, noting that providing networking among schools was a priority for the forum. The People Project is digging deep into problems and solutions through partner meetings and this inaugural event on poverty, which drew 170 people from several districts in the area.

Sessions were held on increasing student and family engagement in the education process; building community schools; examining biases; looking for hidden and unforeseen challenges families face getting to school events; and building social-emotional learning. The goal is to help students be secure and safe, and then move on to actualization and learning.

Dealing with the effects of poverty right up front, Massena hosted a back-to-school event supported by the local union that was so successful, 11 schools in the region held similar programs this year. Vendors provided educational information; barbers and BOCES students donated time and expertise to give students free haircuts; police departments donated bike helmets; fire departments donated winter coats; students received free books. Plenty of clothing, organized by volunteers by size, was also available.

Sarah Belile, a guidance counselor with the Morristown TA, said her school now has a backpack food program for families in need, and she relies on an “angel network” — a handful of families who have volunteered to help — to assist families in need.

“Our teacher’s union supports many activities,” Belile said. “Our number one priority is ‘How are our students? How are our families? Our focus is on relationships.”

Because so many families in Gouverneur struggle to provide school supplies for their children, the district agreed to supply notebooks, folders, crayons, etc. for all students. Parents were solicited to fill out paperwork and now the district has a free hot breakfast and lunch for every student. A closet was set up with snow pants, boots, hats and gloves so all kids can play outside in winter; they are cleaned afterward in the school washer and dryer.

The district also makes sure that any school activities involving a cost — such as school picture day, a book fair or a field trip — are spread out so that none of them fall within the same pay period for working families.

Using Title I grant money, a parent Uber transportation was set up, so parents could get to school events. Transportation is also available in a district-owned van or with other parents.

“We know families want to be involved; we have to help them,” said Gouverneur TA member Meagan Dupuis-Fregoe.

“Have you ever tried to get around the North Country without a car?” said Board of Regents member Beverly Ouderkirk, who shared that due to an injury she has spent months being unable to drive.

“I always thought that if you really wanted something and worked hard and made sacrifices, you could do it,” Ouderkirk said. But in her travels around the state she saw the awful conditions some students face on a daily basis — drug-infested neighborhoods, nearly impassable roads. In one poor district, a crumbling wall caved in and killed a student.

“Kids were on their stoops too scared to walk to school,” she said. After seeing those realities “I questioned my beliefs and my cockiness.”

Since the People Project launched in 2016 as a union-led, grassroots community coalition effort focused on education and economic security, educators and activists have joined forces to tackle a host of issues facing the area.

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