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Pekin schools program provides low-income students with anything from new shoes to Uber rides

Pekin Public Schools parent liaison Lynne Johnson, coordinator of Student Services Amy Hubner and parent liaison Shana Stewart.
Camryn Cutinello
Pekin Public Schools parent liaison Lynne Johnson, coordinator of Student Services Amy Hubner and parent liaison Shana Stewart.

Pekin Public Schools District 108 is working to help low-income students with two parent liaisons who help families with anything from school supplies or rides to a doctor's appointment.

The program was first created more than two decades ago to help students experiencing homelessness. It was started under the McKinney-Vento law, which provides resources to people experiencing homelessness.

Under McKinney-Vento, students in Illinois are allowed to attend their school of origin, even if their temporary residence is no longer within that school district. Schools are required to provide transportation for those students.

Shana Stewart, one of the two liaisons, said the Pekin Public Schools program was started so they could do more to help students.

Stewart started working at the district 20 years ago. She said the number of students experiencing homelessness have grown. They’re working with more than 110 students experiencing homelessness this year.

“So a lot of times, those families are kind of what we consider to be invisible homeless, because they have residents, they have a roof over their heads,” Stewart said. “So they are doubled up with grandma or grandpa or a friend, or someone who's allowing space in a basement or an extra bedroom, so that they have somewhere to stay, because they just don't have the financial means at this time to have their own residence.”

Lynne Johnson, the other liaison, said schools will call them if they believe a family needs assistance and then the two of them will contact the family.

“We need to go find out for one, if they need transportation to get to the school because they might be in a different district, but they still need to get to their school of origin,” Johnson said. “If they've been evicted. They had to leave without clothes without supplies without just about everything. So if they need coats, we find coats. If they need shoes, we can give them shoes, supplies.”

Stewart and Johnson also work with low-income families. According to the Illinois State Report Card, 66% of students in the district are low-income.

Stewart said much of their work relies on meeting face-to-face with families, which made it difficult to help during the pandemic.

“We like to speak one on one with families, and learn everything we can,” she said. “Because a lot of times people don't think of things we may have, like, we have a clothes hamper in our storage area. So if you're moving into a new place, I don't want you to spend $20 on a clothes hamper, I want to give you that clothes hamper so that you have that $20 to move forward on something else you need.”

They were still able to work with families to provide food and cleaning supplies. Johnson said there’s been a few lasting impacts.

“I think attendance is a big problem,” she said. “There was a small problem before the pandemic, but afterwards with mental depression, and some mental issues that might have popped up.”

Amy Hubner, coordinator of student services, said many families are still working to recover financially from the pandemic. This has increased the number of families requiring assistance.

She said they’ve been able to meet the demand thanks to donations, grants and state funding. She says their storage area is full of donated items that they can give to a family at any time.

“So we don't have to go to the store every time we need a coat,” Hubner said. “Or we need a pair of shoes or some Lysol or even laundry detergent, something to provide the families. And we also provide gas cards and laundry cards as well, which are just basic needs.”

Stewart said the families they work with often experience food insecurity. She said Pekin has food pantries through churches and other organizations, but families can’t always get enough food through them.

“You're raising five boys, or five girls, they eat and they're going through growth spurts,” Stewart said. “And you've got to keep replenishing what's in the kitchen and keep a good stock of food. And unfortunately, sometimes that's just not able to be done with a couple food pantries. So we'd like to be able to fill in those needs if possible.”

Hubner said they have partnerships with local churches to create snack packs that students can take home for the weekend.

“We work differently at every grade level to make sure that the student's needs are met, but that the students also feel comfortable,” she said. “We want to make sure that they have those and the families thank us a lot for those because it may be one bag, but they share it with siblings.”

Hubner said a large part of the program is helping connect families to other resources, such as food pantries.

“They're also educating them on if they're not around for some reason, or it's a time of day or night that they can't be reached, empowering them to have the resources available and know how to use them,” she said. “Because I think it's hard to throw resources at any person and say, ‘go ahead, here they are,’ but they walk them through on what the resources provide, and the different agencies and really guide them through the process.”

Steward said her and Johnson answer calls for assistance at any time, whether that’s at night or over summer break.

She said during the summer students can get lunch through Pekin Township, which helps alleviate some of the need. The library and park district also offer resources for families over the extended break.

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Camryn Cutinello is a reporter at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@ilstu.edu.