Helping Solve the Puzzle of Youth Homelessness
Beth McCullough is being honored as a Champion of Change for her work to combat homelessness among children and youth.
The woman who hired me 11 years ago said "I don't know if we have any homeless students here, but the Federal Government said we have to hire someone to go find them." The previous year they identified one homeless student in the school district. I spoke to the local shelter and they reported having over 90 students in their shelter that year, most of whom weren't attending school. They didn't know which school to go to or if they were allowed to go to school while in the shelter. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act immediately changed lives in that shelter.
I started finding students in homeless situations outside of the shelter system. I found them in sheds, under porches, in abandoned buildings and "couch surfing." I found the students but I also found a lack of services. The power of their stories reached our community and agencies and individuals came together to find answers.
Food pantries agreed to stay open after school hours. Goodwill Industries, which usually works with individuals with disabilities, started an employment program for homeless unaccompanied youth. Collaborative efforts formed a program much like a foreign exchange student program, except a family takes in a homeless student. It is called "Roadmap to Graduation" and to date 100% of students in that program have graduated. Our Head Start program added a Head Start Family Worker to our largest shelter and doubled the number of homeless students in Head Start.
I am always learning new things about this work. I rented caps and gowns for all our graduating students who had been homeless unaccompanied youth. I sat in the bleachers and cheered them on and then noticed that all "my" kids had wrinkled graduation gowns. So the next year we had an ironing party. These are some of the most amazing people I have ever met. In our "Roadmap to Graduation" program 87% of our graduates go on to higher education.
There is a “click” that occurs when I am able to make something good happen. When I can be part of overcoming barriers, part of making wrong things right, I feel a “click.” It is like working on a puzzle and I come back to the puzzle again and again and try to make sense out of the pieces, and then, there it is, and click, it fits.
Homeless kids walk around with a box of puzzle pieces. When they come into my office we work on their puzzle. Often I am a piece of the puzzle that was missing from their box, but others are too. Teachers, administrators, counselors, state coordinators, homeless advocates, policy directors and legislators all have a piece of these kids’ puzzles. When it clicks, when it comes together, the feeling is so satisfying, so good.
On the last day of school this year I watched a student working diligently. She graduated but it was close right up to the end. She had cried and laughed many times in my office. I pleaded her case with teachers, administrators and agencies countless times. When I watched her working like she had never done before, I could feel the click. I saw her last week. She is now employed. "Click."
Beth McCullough is the Homeless Education Coordinator for Lenawee County in Michigan