ST. GEORGE — The Assistance League of Southern Utah has awarded the Washington County School District the National School Bell Award for programs and services that improve the lives of impoverished children and families.
At the meeting of the board of education earlier this month, Kay Miner, president of the Southern Utah Assistance League, gave a short presentation about the organization’s impact in local schools.
“The Washington County School District has joined with us since 2008 in serving the children of Southern Utah,” Miner said. “We especially want to thank Mike Carr, Amy Mitchell and 38 counselors from the Washington County schools. We couldn’t do it without them.”
Operation School Bell is a program in which Assistance League volunteers and donors provide school clothes, books and other supplies to children in need. In the last year, the Assistance League has clothed 901 kids, given away over 100 pairs of new shoes and donated 828 books for kids to keep and take home.
“We were surprised when we realized how many children we were able to help this school year,” Miner said. “Even with COVID restrictions, we clothed more children than ever. We had twice as many shopping events so they’d be smaller, and we had half as many volunteers. As of December 2020, we held 23 shopping events and spent $94,000.”
Superintendent Larry Bergeson and Board President Kelly Blake accepted the award on behalf of the district. In a short address to the meeting’s audience, Bergeson said the support from the Assistance League is invaluable.
“They do a world of good for us,” Bergeson said. “You’d think in St. George that we don’t have a lot of kids that need this sort of thing, but we have fairly consistently between 800 and even over 1,000 kids that meet the definition of homelessness. These guys (the Assistance League) are always there, and they never take credit.”
Homeless and unaccompanied children are tracked and served as part of the district’s student and health services. Mike Carr, a homeless liaison and student services coordinator, said that the district’s most recent review found 660 area students that fit the criteria for homelessness.
Children and teens living in temporary housing like hotels or campgrounds, shelters, hospitals, public spaces or sharing the housing of other persons due to economic hardship are considered homeless for the purposes of the district. In addition to those that fit the strict definitions, there are thousands of students living at or below the poverty line in Washington County.
“Our city looks pretty new, and you don’t really see poverty,” Carr said. “But we have a service industry town and county. Those jobs don’t make a lot and we’ve got really high rent, so it’s a tough common combination to survive. Sometimes people have got to let something go that doesn’t get paid for, and a lot of times it’s food or sometimes it’s clothing.”
In fact, there are about 200 fewer homeless students at the present compared to yearly averages, Carr said. He said he’s not exactly sure why the number has dropped but that it could possibly be attributed to more people receiving federal aid currently, higher homeschool rates or some combination of the two.
Carr said the impact of these donations and programs aimed at clothing homeless or impoverished children are far reaching.
“If I can help families get those things, then when kids come to school they look just like anybody else,” Carr said. “They don’t feel that much different, and they’re not worried about where they’re going to sleep or if they got enough to eat. Then they can focus on learning.”
More information about programs and services available through the district can be found by contacting Mike Carr at 435-986-5167. The Washington County School Board Foundation also manages a fund for donations to at-risk students in need of medical or mental health services, which can be accessed on the foundation website.
The Assistance League of Southern Utah is a volunteer organization based in St. George. More information about their initiatives, including Operation School Bell, can be found online.
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