MPS outreach feeds kids’ bodies and minds The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

MPS outreach feeds kids’ bodies and minds

MPS outreach feeds kids’ bodies and minds

Tribune Executive Editor

As Gov. Doug Ducey reminded Arizonans last week, the pandemic has impacted more than just reading, writing and ‘rithmetic in school districts.

For many, including Mesa Public Schools, closures also threatened the very lives of many children, who depend on districts for basics that their better-off classmates might not even think about much.

Like meals.

When campuses were first closed, MPS swung into action to provide curbside pickup of sack breakfasts and lunches.

And for about the last six weeks or so, a team of MPS employees not only helped to keep scores of needy children and their families fed. They also made sure they kept their minds engaged, delivering food and books to needy families at eight schools throughout the city.

“When we had to close schools, we were in triage,” recalled Marlo Loria, the district’s executive director of innovative partnerships. “We were in crisis management where you address the most immediate needs – which are making sure the institution stays afloat financially; that people still have jobs and are paid; and then ensuring that kids have learning opportunities because that’s what our jobs are.”

After the meal distribution program settled into a groove, delivering thousands of breakfasts and lunches to kids who needed them, the district supervisor who works with the estimated 7,000 pupils from homeless families in the district raised a new alarm.

She noted that closures also deprived those children of the resources they get when they can go to school – such as hygiene products, books and computers.

So Loria and her team came up with a program that addressed a few issues: helping those needy families, providing jobs for district employees who would otherwise have been laid off because their jobs precluded working from home and responding to countless businesses, organizations and individuals that wanted to donate clothing and other necessities.

Among those businesses was Amazon.

Around a year ago, a teacher helped the district develop a relationship with the tech giant, which donated pallets of excess inventory.

“So we created a system where we turned one of our office spaces into what I would call kind of our own little distribution center where we collected donations from Amazon,” Loria said. “We had books donated from United Way. We collected food from several different food banks and we started putting together food bags and hygiene bags.”

Employees from the district’s idled Community Education Department – which runs before and after-school programs – sorted and bagged donations.

Bus drivers who had no students to drive to and from school drove along established routes to deliver the bags of food and books to motels in the city where many homeless families live.

The goal of that outreach, Loria explained, was simple: “If our most vulnerable kids can’t come to us, we’re going to go to our most vulnerable students. Their families are in dire situations and really need resources sent to them.”

The next stage started after Governing Board member Marci Hutchinson raised concerns about what would happen with these children now that the district wasn’t running summer school.

“Libraries wouldn’t be open for them and we just had a donation of 600 books from United Way and we said ‘How are we going to give away 600 books?’” Loria said.

And that led to yet another stage of the district’s outreach – which was fueled by more than $5,000 in cash donations from local businesses.

In what Hutchinson called “a win-win for our students and local businesses,” the district used that money to buy books from Changing Hands Bookstore.

While Loria’s team could have simply put books in food bags that were delivered, there was a recognition that kids like to pick out their reading material.

Hutchinson noted that many families were coming to school sites to pick up food bags and boxes and wondered “couldn’t we give out books as well at them,” Loria said.

The district identified seven schools where the most families showed up for food bags and Loria’s team not only took food bags but also spread hundreds of books on tables for both children and their parents and guardians to peruse and take with them.

“We made sure we were very strategic,” Loria explained. “We paired the book distribution with the meal distribution. We coined it ‘Feed to Read’and told them ‘come grab your food and then come next door and pick out some books.’”

The principals at the schools that were selected – Taft, Stevenson, Edison, Redbird, Webster and Emerson elementary schools and Carson Junior High – got the word out to their families.

“We didn’t advertise it on a district level because we didn’t want huge crowds,” Loria explained. “We had to keep social distance.”

The reaction delighted Loria and her team as well as Hutchinson.

“The children could put pick a few books that were personal to them,” she said. “That was very important to board member Hutchinson.”

“I had one little boy who chose all Star Wars books,” she recalled, noting that his haul would be treasured far more than an impersonal distribution of bags with books that might not have as much meaning.

“I think some of them were a little timid because they thought ‘Oh, I can only get one book’ and we said, ‘Oh no, pick three or four books,” Loria said. “Some of them asked ‘Do we have to return them?’ and we told them ‘These are yours to keep so make sure they’re books you are really interested in reading.’”

“We also had quite a few adults that came in and just picked out books for their kids or their grandkids,” Loria added. “Some adults asked about books they could read.”

Among the entities that helped the outreach program were the City of Mesa,which provided some art kits; the i.d.e.a. Museum, which donated books; and, of course, Amazon, which over the past year has donated thousands of diapers, hygiene supplies, toilet paper, laundry supplies and an endless list of other items.

The outreach ended the last Friday of June as the district began shifting gears to prepare for the uncertainties of the new school year.

But the lessons Loria and her team learned have given them an idea.

At the beginning of summer, Amazon “gave us our biggest donation,” so the district began using space at Westwood High.

But now that space is getting too packed and the district and the city are discussing a takeover of the abandoned Mervyn’s store on Main Street and Stapley Road, where a sign saying “Together” hangs.

Her vision is to have the city, school district and local nonprofits run their programming for needy families out of there.

“So, we would have our own Amazon distribution center and then all the schools would come there to get what they needed to distribute to their families,” Loria said.

“We have quite a few schools that report that they will find families living in their cars parked on their campuses – a lot actually – but they’re not quite sure where to go…because navigating the system can be very cumbersome.

“And my dream would be to have a location where staff could send a family that’s in dire need and then we would have A New Leaf or Save the Family or other representatives there to do kind of like intake and then get them out to the different community resources that are available and to kind of just streamline the process.”

Pointing to the mountain of research that links dire poverty with poor academic performance, Loria said, “If we could partner and align our resources better to help get a family on their feet, it’s going to be a win-win for both of our kids and their educational experience.” ′

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