Springfield Program Supports Homeless Students

Getting any young child excited about learning can be a challenge. But for kids who don’t always know where their next meal is coming from or where they’ll be sleeping for the night – it can be even harder to focus on school work. Volunteers in the community are stepping up to help through an after-school program for homeless and at-risk kids called Compass. Rachel Otwell takes us to one of the Compass sites in Springfield:

Amy Swinford is a 35-year-old single mother who’s currently unemployed. She plans on getting a degree in biology at Lincoln Land Community College. She’s worked as a waitress and cashier and for now she’s living free of charge in a house that her mother would otherwise rent out. She says money is tight. Her son and daughter who are 7 and 9 go to Dubois Elementary. They have been part of the Compass program since last year when it started. One of the school’s social workers told Swinford about it. She says the snack and dinner that Compass provides are appreciated, so is the group of volunteers and staff who look out for her kids:

SWINFORD: “Ethan, last year, he got a hole in his backpack, and with not knowing where you’re going to have money for things … one of the teachers said we have this extra backpack and I’m just going to give it to him. They’re just really, really sweet and they’re helpful.”

Swinford says Compass provides assistance for not just monetary needs, but the tutors there help her stay on top of her kids’ homework. But most children in the Springfield school district who meet the federal definition of “homeless” aren’t able to attend the weekly Compass Program. And in case you’re wondering why you don’t notice these homeless kids wandering the streets or camped outside the library, the federal definition of “homeless” is vague:

PREDMORE: “They don’t have a roof over their heads that they count as home. And that may mean that they’re living in a local motel. They could be camping out, staying in an RV. They could be sleeping on somebody’s couch perhaps. Or it may mean that their family is separated from each other so that they all have a place to sleep in different homes.”

That’s Erin Predmore, she’s the executive director of Family Service Center in Illinois which helps run on the Compass program. She says the program is also for kids at-risk of being homeless.

PREDMORE: “Our goal this year is to reach 150 students, but there are 600 that have been identified, and so there is so much more that we have to do, and we need the people of Springfield to help us, so that we can do it. We have a great model, and it seems to be working really well, the kids and the parents and teachers are very receptive and excited about it, and the kids are making progress … So it’s important that the people who want to get involved do get involved, so we can keep this going.”

The program started last year here at Douglas Avenue Methodist Church. Kids from Dubois Elementary which is located less than half a mile away come here.
The church funded the compass program the first year. Now a grant from United Way is being utilized so that the program can grow and staff could be hired. Predmore says Compass is only able to provide one-quarter of the District 186 elementary schools with an after-school program. Right now a couple of the Compass volunteers are assisting first grader Anija Moore with reading and writing.

OTWELL: “Did you write those words yourself?”

MOORE: “Uhm, well no she did and I just said the words. And I’m going to read another book, and it’s going to be this book…”

She’s 6 years old, and relatively new to the Compass Program. Anija says she likes coming here, because:

MOORE: “I love to learn and love to read.”

Sari Wancket is one of the volunteers working with Anija:

WANCKET: “Anija picked a book that she wanted to read, that really is above her, so she was telling the story herself and we were just letting her do that. And then she picked another book that she was able to read herself, so we were trying to make sure that she read all the words correctly. And she was also practicing her … words from school. She told us those herself, she didn’t bring them, she told us the ones she remembered and we shared them with the other kids too, so.”

And as much as Anija likes to learn, there are also other reasons she enjoys coming to the Compass program:

MOORE: “Like, I love the part where we like eat stuff and stuff and today we’re baking. I love to cook at home with my mom too.”

Anija has moved on from reading and writing to a room where earlier kids getting out of school sat and socialized while eating carrots and granola bars and drinking milk. Now they’re learning how to make brownies:

MOORE:   “I am making my recipe … this is how you make it, you mix, then we put in some ingredients then we keep mixing it until we don’t see any more flour, and then we share…”

Ashley Scott, who’s a student at the University of Illinois Springfield is giving detailed instructions on how to make the brownies from scratch.

SCOTT: “So right  now, everyone see the pans that you have? Everybody has a pan? Okay…”

She heard about the volunteer opportunity through the university. She’s a senior studying criminal justice and she says she’s thinking about going into non-profit work when she graduates. She says this is a way for her to share her passion for baking while getting a feel for the non-profit environment. And she says she likes interacting with the kids.

BAKING BROWNIES: “Seeing them happy, smiling, it kind of brings me back to being at home with my sisters and brothers, since I am the oldest. It kind of puts like a little something in my heart … just to know that I’m helping out in some way, shape, or form.”

Erin Predmore who helps coordinate the Compass Program says it’s the volunteers who further the mission to keep homeless kids in District 186 well fed and well-educated:

PREDMORE: “One of the critical parts of the program is that we have that we have the same volunteers come every week. So we have these committed volunteers that show up to be with the kids, and if they’re say, playing the role of tutor, they are there every week to tutor that same child. So that tutor knows, you probably didn’t do your spelling homework, and so I’m going to help you do that now. Or let’s do your math cards, or let’s look at your math facts, you’ve got a time test coming up on Friday. So they get to know the child really well, and that’s … a real powerful part of the program.”

Predmore says there’s hope that the Compass program will continue to expand through the continued support of volunteers.

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