By Audrey Caro
Lebanon School District’s Student Services offices are getting a makeover.
Welcome Center and Family Support staff have painted, rearranged and even put curtains up in the office, which is located at the School District office. It’s an attempt to give the space a friendlier vibe.
“We want everyone to feel welcome,” said Yesenia Salinas, community liaison.
Salinas is part of a team of four that helps families find a variety of resources from shelter to hygiene products to food.
Until recently, Roseanne Hartness was the only staff member assigned to aid students and families who were facing homelessness or food insecurity.
Jennifer Meckley, director of Human Resources and Community Relations, said she was impressed by the work Hartness did on her own.
“She started this on her own,” Meckley said of the homeless student services and the weekend food backpack program.
“The job is too big for one person,” Meckley said. “We were just putting out fires. It’s overwhelming for one person to do.”
Hartness is currently on leave, Meckley said.
With additional staff, the team is getting some systems set up to expand their offerings.
Salinas and fellow community liaisons Amy Souza and Julie Miller are district employees. Mindy Hoeckle, from the Linn-Benton-Lincoln Education Service District, works with LCSD three days a week.
“(Hoeckle) teaches us something every day,” Miller said. “She’s a great resource.”
Meckley said Hoeckle can get kids connected to OHP and other programs that help them be self- sufficient.
“She is trained to go deeper (and help with) more complicated situations.”
Salinas is bilingual and is an extra support for families whose first language is Spanish.
“We have many, many families in need, that are not necessarily in the homeless situation but have needs,” Meckley said. “I’m in different community groups and I know that there are community organizations that want to help, that work with the same families that we do.”
Meckley said chronic attendance issues are an issue in Lebanon because of a high mobility rate, meaning those students don’t stay in the district for the entirety of their schooling.
“We know that the data shows that if students stay with us for an extended period of time in our school system, they’re successful,” Meckley said. “We need to get families to be able to stay in Lebanon and we can’t do that on our own as a school system. It takes all of us.”
She said that she knows community members want to be involved.
“We started going to visit other school districts that have welcome centers like this to get ideas,” she said.
Every community has different needs, but one of the things she learned about in one district is that their welcome center registers every new family.
“I don’t know that we would register them, but I would like to somehow connect with every new family in our district,” Meckley said.
In addition to being able to offer resources, it may help families feel more connected to the community, she said.
They can help people fill out paperwork, access the clothing closet or get information about daycare, Miller said.
The goal is to make the Welcome Center a one-stop shop, Souza said. “We can welcome them and kind of help direct them.”
Meckley said they are still in the process of establishing different processes.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to be satisfied,” she said. “(We’re always) going to want to grow and continue to improve. Getting the physical space ready has been a huge factor, so probably in the next month, we’ll actually have the physical space decent looking so people will know this is where it is.”
The team has continued to help students and families during the transition.
“(We are doing) all the things you do when you’re starting a business, while you’re flying a plane,” Meckley laughed.
“Some of the things we’re really good at here is meeting the basic needs of kids.”
The district has a warehouse full of clothing and school supplies that community members have donated, she said.
Miller is leading the backpack program, which provides food for students to take home.
“We’re doing about 70 a week,” Miller said.
After the Christmas break, Miller expanded the backpack program to the Lebanon High School campus.
The food that goes in the backpacks is donated by the community, Meckley said.
“Our ultimate goal would be to have some fresh fruit but we fill them on Wednesdays and sometimes they don’t go home until Friday, so we’re sticking with shelf-stable stuff,” Miller said. “We’re putting in what they will eat and what they can fix.”
That list includes tuna, refried beans, bread, ramen and applesauce cups.
Souza has helped families find housing solutions.
She is new to the district but has several years of experience dealing with people who are in difficult situations, from her time working at the Pregnancy Alternative Center to the formation of the Enliven Foundation, which she established with a colleague in 2014 to help single mothers gain higher education.
“I feel like I’m talking with a lot of families who are going through really difficult times – whether it’s being homeless or living with family or whatever the situation is,” Souza said. “It’s very familiar and I enjoy it so much.”
Souza said she has been on the receiving end of this type of help as well.
“One thing I tell all the families who come in here, in anybody’s lifetime, no matter if you’re the most successful to just your average Joe, everybody goes through a time when they need extra support,” Souza said. “I’ve gone through it, so it’s great to pass that on. My slogan – keep moving forward – that’s what I tell all my families. Keep moving forward, even if it’s just little steps. Little steps are still steps forward.”
Helping becomes more complicated when housing is an issue. Because there are not shelters in Lebanon, families need to go to Albany or Corvallis. That adds the issue of transportation in order to keep the children in the school district.
Souza said some families who have come in are nervous about any kind of authority “because they’re afraid of having their kids taken away.”
She tries to reassure them that her goal is to help get them into a stable situation so they can succeed as a family.
Salinas often deals with families who are concerned about their loved ones being separated because of immigration status.
The district hosts a Latino night once a month to provide information about everything from health insurance to updates on the laws.
“This is where the trust comes in,” Salinas said. “You pour your heart out – You’re coming into the boat with them and you will help them no matter what. We will help as much as we can. We will walk a mile and a half with them.”
Salinas said her Welcome Center colleagues have been “awesome.”
“We all have the heart for our community,” she said. “We are here to help, not judge or criticize. I’m very happy with these amazing ladies. We help one another, regardless of culture. We’re all the same.”
Even more than being thankful for her colleagues, Salinas is thankful to God, she said.
“I believe God is awesome and is opening doors for the Welcome Center in our community,” Salinas said. “I’m a faith-based person and I’m not ashamed to say we have been praying for the Welcome Center. God put it in our hearts to reach out to our community and I just love it.”