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School Districts Connect Students Experiencing Homelessness With Resources Over the Holidays

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

There are lots of ways Wisconsin’s school districts help students who are experiencing homelessness or are in transition, and winter break is an especially important time. When schools are closed, students may feel isolated. They may not have access to regular meals. When they return to school, it’s hard not to notice the new coats and stories of all the gifts other children have received. That’s where school district social workers and homelessness coordinators step in.

Madison Metropolitan School District has a TEP program specifically addressing the needs of students experiencing homelessness. They have a current wish list for items that they keep on hand to help students, like clothing and toiletries. The program often receives unsolicited donations, and they stress how important it is to give them only what they need and ask for because they (like most school districts) don’t have enough storage space to keep extra on hand.

This is the 11th year for MMSD’s partnership with Santas Without Chimneys, a completely volunteer-run organization founded by retired Madison Streets snow plow driver Chaous Riddle. Riddle became acutely aware of the conditions of Madison’s unhoused families while driving her snow plow routes.

MMSD’s social workers identify all students in the district who are experiencing homelessness – whether they are in shelters, living out of cars, or doubled up in emergency housing with others. School social workers fill out specific wish lists for each child, and pass them to Santas to be sponsored or fulfilled by community members. Unlike larger toy drives, Santas also provides gifts for unaccompanied teens, including blankets and gift cards.The organization wraps each present and then sends their sleighs out to deliver presents on Chrismas Eve. Because families experiencing homelessness can be very mobile, Santas has even delivered students' presents on short notice to Wisconsin Dells and Chicago. 

In its first year, Santas provided gifts to almost 100 kids. Each year, the program has expanded as need has exploded. As of this writing, Santas will deliver personalized presents to 808 students experiencing homelessness throughout Madison.

According to Carrie Kulinski, the homeless student liaison for the School District of Janesville, the district works with many community partners to make sure students have what they need for the holidays.

“Many times I will have local businesses reach out to me during the Holidays asking how they can help," Kulinski said. "I usually tell them we need warm winter items like snow pants and boots. We also have a wishlist on our district website where people can purchase online and have items directly sent to the schools.” The City of Janesville also donates warm winter items.

The Salvation Army provides small gifts for younger children, and the local food pantry (ECHO) has a toy drive, weekend food bags to McKinney Vento families, and a free Christmas meal to anyone who wishes to attend. Project 16:49 takes care of gift bags to unaccompanied homeless youth. The gift bags include socks, gloves, hats, hygiene items, blankets, treats and gift cards.

Dollar General and Festival Foods work with the school district on the "Bags of Hope" annual food drive. The district provides two weeks worth of groceries to 350 families and 50 senior citizens. Dollar General donates household, hygiene items, gift cards, and their warehouse to hold the volunteer packing event. Festival Foods provides a discounted cost of the food and gift cards. Festival also delivers all of the food to the warehouse for the packing event. Community volunteers deliver directly to families wherever they are.

The experience of being homeless is difficult at any time of year, but is much more difficult during the winter break. The DPI supports the hard work of all the state's school social workers and homeless student coordinators. The work you do every day to connect students and families to resources that honor their humanity and move them towards stability and wholeness are extraordinary.

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