School programs focus on county children in need

Donations make holidays joyful for less fortunate families

December 24, 2006|By Elizabeth Dow | Elizabeth Dow,sun reporter

As the weather grows colder, most Howard County students grab a winter coat from the closet - or the floor - and think nothing of it. But not everyone.

Some students come to school without coats.

"In the winter, some families have to make the choice between electricity and new coats," said Linda Martin, who has worked for 16 years as a pupil personnel worker in the county school system. "Especially since children have growth spurts and families who expect to use the coats from last year cannot."

Providing children with coats is one aim of the school system's Office of Pupil Personnel Workers. This unit of 18 men and women is an advocate for students, working with schools, families and the community to provide counseling and crisis support. The coat drive is one of three outreach programs providing winter coats, holiday food and gifts and other help for families facing financial pressures.

"There is such a tremendous need in Howard County," said Catherine Chapman, who has been a pupil personnel worker for seven years. "People assume that we have no needs."

In early winter, the office works with the PTA Council on an annual coat drive. PTA delegates, assigned to every school, put boxes in school lobbies for donations of new and gently used coats.

Last year, 650 coats were handed out. This year, more than 1,200 coats have been donated and 888 distributed.

Providing shoes, coats and other clothing, school supplies and medical care, the Help-A-Child Fund is another of the office's outreach programs. The fund was created in 1993 by the pupil personnel office and the Howard County Education Association, a teachers union. All time and materials are donated, and the program has no administrative costs.

The fund helps students in all grades who are referred by personnel workers in the field, school guidance counselors and educators. According to Martin, "Once needs are identified, [we] pair up families' needs with resources."

Help-A-Child is a year-round program. During the holiday season, however, the demands for help increase.

"The cold weather brings higher BGE bills, and starting after October, many families who are living paycheck to paycheck become more and more in need," said Martin. To meet the increased demand, school system employees are encouraged to make donations to the Help-A-Child Fund rather than buying holiday gifts for one another.

This year, referrals for help are up 33 percent from 249 referrals last year. "When the economy takes a downturn, people lose their jobs. There are families in crisis that you would not ordinarily expect to go into that category," Martin said.

Sponsor-A-Family, another initiative, started in 1999 with one woman's goal of teaching her child about giving.

When 5-year-old Jordan Szarko asked his mother who feeds the poor at Thanksgiving, Linda Szarko did not simply answer the question. Instead, she took the opportunity to teach her son the importance of reaching out to help others.

She went to her son's school, West Friendship Elementary, and asked Penny Jones, the principal's secretary, to find a family that needed help with Thanksgiving dinner.

"I decided to feed them everything my grandmother had for us" at her family's Thanksgiving dinners, said Szarko. "We bought a plastic laundry basket, and we filled it with a frozen turkey and vegetables, fresh potatoes and rolls ... cranberries, pretty napkins and a few extras like hot chocolate, cereal and pancake mix. For dessert, we put in pumpkin and apple pie."

After Szarko and her son delivered the basket of food, Jordan Szarko continued to ask more questions, and his family continued to reach out to more families the next year.

Today, the program provides Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas dinners and presents to more than 20 Howard County families.

The program's expansion came about because the Szarkos involved friends, Girl Scout troops and others in the project.

When Martin, who was working at West Friendship Elementary, heard about the program, she told her supervisor, and now the pupil personnel office plays a vital role in the service. Martin and her colleagues identify families in need and involve school system employees in the outreach program while maintaining the confidentiality of the families.

Mamie Perkins, chief of staff of the Howard County school system, recently sponsored a family with seven children. The program usually does not ask for large gifts, but the three boys really wanted bikes. Perkins worked with a sporting goods store, which donated the three bikes.

"Every year, my office does this. It is our way of doing something meaningful for families in need at the holiday," said Perkins, "We used to do the traditional gift exchange among ourselves. Now, instead of giving to each other, we give to someone else."

The Office of Pupil Personnel Workers is in Room B-46 of the Applied Research Laboratory next to the Board of Education on Route 108. To contribute to any of the programs: 410-313-6646.

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