Ellen Lobue didn’t go to school to become a Social Worker, but the job got a hold of her there. The more she learned about the field, the more she loved it. Eventually, she found herself working as a private contractor within a state-funded program called Children and Pregnant Women. There, she helped young mothers to obtain the prenatal care and support they needed for healthy pregnancies and healthy babies. Through that program, she found herself at KEYS Learning Center; the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District’s alternative education campus. She’s been serving at-risk children in HEB ISD ever since.
In 1987, federal legislators passed the McKinney Vento Act to support homeless youth in schools. Under the provisions of the act, any child who lacks “fixed, regular, and adequate” accommodations at night must be identified and tracked by the school district. The district is also obligated to provide public notice and access to school services for those children by designating at least one staff member as a homeless liaison. In 2004, Lobue was asked to serve in support of another staffer who filled that role. It was a part-time job at the time. Less than a year later, the arrival of Hurricane Katrina pressed her into the full-time position she holds today.
She's a fan of Operation Back 2 School.
When Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana at the end of August 2005, it displaced an estimated 600,000 households across the state. Many fled their flooded homes to nearby Texas. Students and families found temporary living quarters in the hotels and motels littered across Airport Freeway. Accessible — but not always reliable — housing fills the corridor there, forming a line of emergency options that runs from east to west through the mid-cities area. Their migration coincided with the early weeks of most school district calendars. With registration for the year already complete, HEB administrators found themselves scrambling to accommodate the new students.
“Overnight we had — I believe it was — between 250 and 300 students come from Louisiana enroll in our district. So, all of sudden, I went from Part Time to Full Time. That’s how this position opened,” Lobue remembers. “We didn’t have any documents or school records. We didn’t know what grade they were in. It was shocking. But we were able to get them enrolled, get them the resources we needed.”
“The schools were incredible: if they had any extra supplies, they were giving them to the kids. The community was incredible: we had hundreds of families living in hotels on airport freeway, and families were bringing clothing, food items, school supplies, backpacks — anything that they had extra — to the various hotels so that these families could pick things that they needed to get these kids enrolled in school… I don’t even know how folks in the community knew which hotels to bring stuff to. It happened within 24 to 48 hours.”
In the Beginning…
6 Stones launched four years later. Since then, our coalition has built a network of support for HEB’s population of men and women in need. While there’s no direct link between those early hurricane relief efforts and the programs that 6 Stones runs today, the heartbeat of the community remains the same; a vital piece of the goodwill upon which our programs depend.
People here help each other. It’s in their blood. So when Lobue approached 6 Stones Executive Director Scott Shepherd to ask for help serving students in HEB, the solution was obvious: take the philanthropic desires of the community and enhance them. Catalyze them, if you will.
“I was talking to Scott Shepherd about how hard it was for these kiddos to start school and not have the supplies and feel as prepared as the kid sitting in the desk next to them. That’s not a way for a student to start school; already feeling like they’re behind because they don’t have the pencils or the map colors or the construction paper or whatever it is that was on that school supply sheet that they were not able to obtain due to financial difficulties,” Lobue said.
“A Huge Boost”
Since its inception in August of 2009, Operation Back 2 School (OB2S) has grown from a drive supporting 1,300 children in nine schools to a full-blown social service fair that will equip 6,000 young men and women on twenty-two unique campuses this year. But, for Lobue, it’s not about numbers or school supplies. It’s about hearts and minds.
“We all want to feel like we belong wherever it is we are. That we fit in. That we’re an equal to the person sitting next to us,” Lobue said. “So imagine being a little student and going into your class and seeing half the kids with new shoes, their new back-to-school outfit, and all their supplies. And when the teachers say ‘put your supplies in your desk,’ what would it be like to have nothing to put in your desk?”
“This back to school festival is a huge boost for those kiddos. They go in and they have their new backpack, they can walk into class and unzip it and put their little supplies in their backpack and feel no different than the kids that are surrounding them in that classroom.”
No child should have to feel inferior to their peers; on the first day of school or the last. Operation Back 2 School helps to close the gap between stable and struggling families. For the thousands of students in the free and reduced lunch program — and for over 700 homeless children under Lobue’s care — the first day of school is far from the last obstacle. To truly support those households requires more than backpacks and notebooks. It means connecting people to the resources they need year-round.
A Philanthropic Festival
Besides the tables full of backpacks and the boxes loaded with binders, students who attend OB2S gain access to over 70 social services and resource providers. Along with their parents and a volunteer tour guide, children identified by the school district as “at-risk” can explore booths that introduce them to after-school programs, dentists, and healthcare providers. They get the chance to apply for Medicaid and food stamps. Those services are tough to lock down without transportation or dependable internet access.
According to Lobue, both public transit and adequate computer equipment can be difficult for local families to find. Individuals battling poverty often lack access to cars. Reliable internet connections are equally elusive. That makes OB2S one of the best places for a local family to find support. But one of the best features of OB2S has nothing to do with physical needs: the children get to play.
During the fair, firefighters and face-painters nestle in between free eye exams and food pantries handing out canned goods. At OB2S, each public servant and volunteer in attendance is dedicated to boosting the morale of every child with whom they interact. If ever a students felt inferior or unloved because they were short a pen or a pink eraser, those feelings must surely vanish as they cavort with police officers and adopt balloon animals from a volunteer brigade of clowns.
Changing the Game
“The rising demographic of economically disadvantaged in our district, I think, changes a lot in the schools. It changes a little bit of the way things are taught or the expectations; we have students in our schools that can’t afford to go to the store and get a supply for a ten dollar project,” Lobue said. “We’ve got to take all of that into account when educating all of the students in our district, to know that 54% of our students are economically disadvantaged.”
“If we can’t meet people’s basic needs — you know, shelter, food — they just can’t function. They can’t think beyond the crisis. That’s every single day in schools. If we send kids to school that are hungry, they’re not going to learn,” she added. “There are people in our district that are hungry all the time. How do you learn when you’re always thinking about where you’re going to sleep for the night?”
“We have to recognize these needs, and we have to — as a community, as a school, as a district, as a teacher — we have to respond to these needs and make sure they’re met. Because most of these kids aren’t going to say ‘I’m hungry, I didn’t eat.’ Because they’re embarrassed.”
Needs and fears grow when left in the dark. But they shrivel up when we shine a light on them and rally to push them back. No matter what form they take — a hurricane’s destructive force, a financial struggle that limits students, or a damaged psyche that chokes their self-esteem — the best remedy is always to speak to the problems our neighbors are facing and join them in their fight. If we can see our problems and discuss them, we can conquer them. That’s what this community does, time and again, for our children through OB2S.