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7's Hero: West Ada School District social workers help homeless students during COVID-19 pandemic

Over 500 homeless students go to school in the West Ada School District, and here’s how they are getting help during the pandemic.

BOISE, Idaho — Erin Bryant serves homeless and unaccompanied students in the West Ada School District as one of the district's many social workers.

“We currently have around 530 students identified in the West Ada School District,” Bryant said. “As you can imagine, that number is probably a lot higher than we know. Especially during these times when families are losing housing and not a lot of rentals are available, I anticipate that number is going to grow quite a bit.”

Homeless students are classified as students who don't have a regular, stable home to go to. Unaccompanied students are those who don't live with a parent or guardian. That includes runaways, students who have been kicked out of their homes or have been abandoned by their parents. 

One of Bryant's goals is to help students who are vulnerable get what they need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Five social workers are employed by the West Ada School District, and four of them are part-time. 

What they do by helping these students, even when things aren’t normal, is amazing. 

“We get them established with food stamps and Medicaid, it's helping them apply for college look up scholarships, it's helping provide basic needs like hygiene and household products,” Bryant said. “Really we just try to help them get established before they graduate. We want to be an extra support for them. “

Bryant's job got a lot tougher when the coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down. Suddenly these kids were left in crisis, even more so than they already were. She said meetings are happening daily to figure out the best and safest ways to get the resources out to the students and their families. 

One of the schools where Erin helps with the case management of students is the Rebound School of Opportunity. 

“Rebound is an alternative high school in the West Ada School District. It’s an incredible school with a staff that loves their students and wants to see them succeed,” she said. “It's a school that students can attend if they have been expelled or suspended. It's a school if they need to get credits done, they can do that. Rebound definitely has a special place in my heart."

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When Idaho schools shifted to online learning, Bryant had an idea for the students she helps at Rebound. 

“I had talked to the principal about the laptop pickup, and to try to figure out a way that I could connect with my students with social distancing and students not being allowed to come to the school to pick up items that I normally provide for them,” she explained. “We came up with an idea to provide a one-stop-shop for our students to pick up their educational needs, their laptops, and then they were able to pull around and get household items, like toilet paper and cleaning supplies, and hygiene supplies like toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo and conditioner, and body wash and then some basic food items.”

Food was also critical because many of the students depend on the school for meals. 

“We were able to provide that to all students who came through, not just our homeless population or unaccompanied students,” she said. “It was just a really great opportunity that we were able to connect, and we were able to maintain social distancing by having them just drive-through and we had a menu up where they could order the items they would like. We were able to bag them up, send them through the window and they were on their way."

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Bryant added that the students were full of gratitude and so were their families. 

“It was pretty overwhelming, the appreciation, they just didn't know that the resources were available right now and there are just so many families in this position. They are not able to work, and their benefits haven't kicked in. They are feeling very hopeless and helpless,” Byrant said. “We are here as a resource for them, the entire district is.”

As Bryant will tell you, social work is filled with rewards, but it can also take a toll on the heart. 

“It definitely can, definitely at times like this when you feel like you can't do much. It's kind of a helpless feeling,” she explained. “But, we also get to do a lot of amazing things for students and their families in our community.”

If you need help, homeless or not, or to make a donation to help the at-risk students in the West Ada School District, here are some resources.

  • Purposity - Download the app and select the West Ada School District. Members can view the current needs of families in the district and choose what they would like to purchase. 
  • Bridging the Gap - This program can help students get everything from lunches, shoes, basic hygiene needs, hearing aids, glasses, bus passes, computers and more. 
  • Project Kids - This program provides unmet basic needs of students and families experiencing homelessness in the West Ada School District. They also pay fees and provide equipment for students to participate in sports and extracurricular activities. 

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