Schools help families with supplies, food in wake of closures

Mike Rogers, right, president of Risen Christ Catholic School in Minneapolis, helps with the distribution of school supplies and food in the school parking lot March 18, 2020. (CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

MINNEAPOLIS (CNS) -- A traffic jam of sorts started at noon March 18 in the parking lot of Risen Christ Catholic School in Minneapolis.

Principal Joelynn Sartell and a handful of teachers directed dozens of vehicles that pulled up to the parking lot. They drove up near the north door and a purple tent with the school's name. One by one, cars, minivans and SUVs with parents and students came to place orders for school supplies and food.

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It was part of an effort to help the many economically disadvantaged families that are trying to navigate the recent school closure. Already struggling families face even tougher times ahead, which the school acknowledges and is trying to soften.

"We have about 330 students; 90% of them fall into the category of low income," said Mike Rogers, the school's president, who also helped out in the parking lot. "Our families are already strapped (financially). Many of them have a situation of basically toxic stress all the time related to economic hardship."

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In just the first hour of a scheduled six-hour distribution effort at the school, 64 cars came through to get school supplies, laptops and food from The Sheridan Story, a local organization that provides meals to schools like Risen Christ once a week. Rogers noted that one of the new hardships for families is no longer having two free meals a day at school for their children who attend.

Gladys Fajardo was among those who drove to the school for supplies. She said her two children who attend the school "were very excited" to see what she brought home to them.

"I really like the work and effort each teacher has put into the learning packets," she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. "Each teacher sent a note and instructions to make it easy for us parents at home to kind of follow the routine the child is used to in the classroom.

"I am really grateful (for) having this kind of support from teachers during this time of uncertainty, with educational content via videos and printouts provided."

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Other Catholic schools with families suffering from economic hardships also are responding to the needs of their families. Three inner-city schools comprise Ascension Catholic Academy, and there is a collective effort underway for the 525 students at the three schools.

It starts with a protocol for teachers to contact each of their students at least every other day, preferably daily. A second initiative is the creation of a help line to assist families who have needs beyond education. People can call their child's school, which then will connect them to someone who can help them find the resources they need from outside agencies.

The third part of the effort will be to work with The Sheridan Story to address food insecurity of students and families. A partnership has been formed, and the school plans to start offering food to needy families soon, said Patricia Stromen, who is president of Ascension Catholic Academy. Families that can will drive to the school to pick up food. For those who can't, food will be delivered.

As school staffs prepare for what could be a prolonged closure, they also are thinking of ways to address non-material needs.

"We're trying to do what we can to accommodate our communities' spiritual needs as well," Rogers said. "We're working on setting up a daily, live-streamed Spanish prayer time at a specific time every day that we will broadcast."

As the closures continue, Stromen said her three schools will focus on continuing the learning so that students don't experience what she calls "the summer slide." It is especially critical because of the achievement gap she said already exists for these students.

Fortunately, students and families have one collective characteristic she said will help them through the current hardships.

"Our families are highly resilient," she said. "Our children, our scholars, are resilient. They're resilient outside of the pandemic. We have every expectation they'll be resilient during a pandemic. I think that's so important to remember."

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