BELOIT - One Beloit Learning Academy student has a lot going for her, but also has some obstacles standing in her way.
She was a straight-A student last term, and hopes to one day study law. She dreams of being a lawyer, to advocate for those who no one else will help. She's well spoken, loves school and is set to graduate early.
She also has been sleeping on a cousin's living room floor, and has to be out of the home on Dec. 1. The 17-year-old girl, who requested to be anonymous, was abused in her past and had little food to eat. One day she didn't make it to school because she couldn't find appropriate clothing.
Beloit Learning Academy staff said the girl represents some of the struggles of homeless and accompanied youth in Beloit. It's part of the reason School District of Beloit is encouraging people to consider purchasing a fast food or grocery gift cards for struggling youth during November, national homeless month, as the temperatures begin to drop.
The gift cards will help students secure meals on nights and on weekends and have a safe and warm place to do homework, according to Beloit Learning Academy social worker Audrey Buchanan, the district's homeless liaison coordinator Robin Stuht, graduation coach Cliff Murry and Beloit Learning Academy math teacher Tracy Schoville.
Stuht said the district has identified 359 students this year who do not have a fixed residence. Out of that number 66 are unaccompanied teens, or not in the care of a parent or guardian.
Some students are "couch surfing" while others stay in cars, people's garages and elsewhere.
Staff said they've noticed an increase in students who have been sleeping in cars as well as those who have become homeless after a parent died.
Buchanan recalled a student whose mom died when he was age 14. He stayed with his grandma until she had to go to a nursing home. The remainder of his family is incarcerated.
"He's bounced from house to house in the last six months and has been in seven or eight different houses. When I take him home, I never know what house he's going to. He was in a hotel this summer with no food," Buchanan said.
Stuht said there is a strong need for more families to participate in the Safe Families for Children program, where families get trained and vetted to take children with the support of a local church. Unlike foster care, the families do not get paid. There are currently two families in the program and more are desperately needed. Stuht said families are sometimes open to taking in a parenting teenager with a baby or toddler, but are more reluctant to take a non-parenting teen.
"Teens are still stigmatized as being problems," Stuht said.
The good news, Murry said, is that there are a lot of scholarship opportunities for kids who are classified as homeless, and there are resources to waive fees for college applications. If the students can get the necessary support such as food and basic toiletries they have a chance for a brighter future. Food cards can be a critical part of helping students, Murry said.
It also makes them feel loved.
"Our kids feel cared about when people are willing to donate these cards. They feel worthwhile and special and sometimes that's the biggest gift they are giving," Stuht said. "I wish they could see the gratitude on their faces when they receive them," Buchanan said.
To donate people can mail or drop off cards to: Beloit Learning Academy (formerly Wright School), 1033 Woodward Ave. For more information contact Stuht at email@example.com or call 608-361-4355.