School sup­plies pour­ing in, but food do­na­tions needed

In­flux of Maria evac­uees cre­ates ‘cri­sis’ in Osce­ola County

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate San­tich Staff Writer

When 10-year-old An­thony Va­len­cia fled his fam­ily’s flooded home in Puerto Rico to re­set­tle with his mother and sis­ters in Or­lando, he was forced to leave be­hind his cousins, his dog and his books — more than 30 of them.

“The air­lines were charg­ing us for lug­gage, and books are heavy,” said his mother, Arieliss Va­len­cia. “I told him he had to leave them and we would start over.”

On Tues­day, the fifth-grade honor stu­dent got his first op­por­tu­nity to re­build. At Riverdale El­e­men­tary, his new school in east Or­lando, the na­tional Kids In Need Foun­da­tion, Scholas­tic Books, Geor­gia Pa­cific and Yoobi — a school sup­ply man­u­fac­turer that do­nates half its mer­chan­dise — gave away hun­dreds of sup­plies and books to 1,800 stu­dents whose fam­i­lies might not be able

In the past week, Osce­ola County Pub­lic Schools have seen a jump in the num­ber of stu­dents clas­si­fied as home­less from about 2,675 to well over 3,000.

to af­ford them other­wise. That in­cluded kids whose fam­i­lies, like An­thony’s, evac­u­ated Puerto Rico af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria dev­as­tated the is­land.

“Heaven. It’s just heaven,” he said, a pile of books, pen­cils, mark­ers and fold­ers in his lap.

Tues­day’s “Big Give” event was or­ga­nized by A Gift for Teach­ing, the Cen­tral Florida char­ity that fun­nels do­nated ma­te­ri­als to class­room teach­ers in pub­lic schools with high poverty rates. Since Maria hit Puerto Rico in Septem­ber, the or­ga­ni­za­tion has been in over­drive.

“A lot of our prod­uct donors have been want­ing to do more since both [Hur­ri­cane] Irma and Maria, be­cause they know how great the need is,” said A Gift For Teach­ing pres­i­dent Jane Thomp­son. “At Riverdale, they’re adding an­other sec­ond grade class and maybe a third, and these kids are spread through­out the whole district.”

In Or­ange County Pub­lic Schools alone, 1,888 chil­dren from Puerto Rico had en­rolled by the end of last week — and an­other 540 had come from other parts of Florida, Texas and the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands as a re­sult of Hur­ri­canes Har­vey, Irma and Maria com­bined.

“We have seen a steady growth across the last few years [in stu­dents in need] that we’ve been able to ab­sorb,” said Deputy Su­per­in­ten­dent Je­sus Jara. “But the jump we’ve seen in the past month and a half has been a chal­lenge. I will say this com­mu­nity has re­ally opened its arms.”

In Osce­ola County, though, the sit­u­a­tion has grown dire, com­mu­nity lead­ers said Tues­day. At a meet­ing of Osce­ola Con­nected — a coali­tion of busi­ness, faith and non­profit groups that help stu­dents with week­end gro­ceries and school sup­plies — chair­woman Sharon Siko­rski called it “a cri­sis.”

Board mem­ber Glo­ria Niec agreed. “We’ve been man­ag­ing our [chil­dren’s] food needs for the past five years, and we re­ally thought things were start­ing to get bet­ter, that the econ­omy was get­ting bet­ter. But now we’re get­ting calls from the schools say­ing they have 100 kids who need food, and I’m re­ally con­cerned about how we’re go­ing to meet that need.”

Col­lec­tively, the group has been us­ing com­mu­nity and cor­po­rate do­na­tions to pro­vide week­end meals and snacks for up to 1,300 el­e­men­tary-school chil­dren each week for five years.

But in the past week alone, Osce­ola County Pub­lic Schools have seen a jump in the num­ber of stu­dents clas­si­fied as home­less — in­clud­ing those liv­ing in cars, mo­tels or the spare bed­rooms of an­other fam­ily’s home — from about 2,675 to well over 3,000. Not all are ex­pected to need gro­ceries for their fam­i­lies, Siko­rski said, but many will.

Niec, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cel­e­bra­tion Foun­da­tion, has ap­pealed to state law­mak­ers for an ap­pro­pri­a­tion in next year’s bud­get of $468,000 — money that would help cover the el­e­men­tary school pro­gram and ex­pand it to Osce­ola’s mid­dle and high schools.

“Food is not a lux­ury,” Niec said. “Kids have food anx­i­ety on Fri­days, wor­ry­ing they’re go­ing to go home and not have any­thing to eat. Just giv­ing them a bag of food gives them a bit of se­cu­rity.”

In Or­ange, a school pantry pro­gram co­or­di­nated by the Chris­tian Ser­vice Cen­ter fed more than 18,000 stu­dents last year — a num­ber that ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Robert Stu­art ex­pects to rise sub­stan­tially af­ter Thanks­giv­ing.

“Right now, we haven’t seen a big in­crease in the need,” he said. “But we are pre­par­ing for that to change as the fam­i­lies from Puerto Rico move out [from stay­ing with rel­a­tives] and live on their own.”

Arieliss Va­len­cia, for one, is stay­ing with her brother while she looks for a job as a cer­ti­fied nurs­ing as­sis­tant, her oc­cu­pa­tion in Puerto Rico, where she was a su­per­vi­sor in a se­nior care fa­cil­ity.

“I’m giv­ing my­self a goal of three months to have a job and a place of our own,” she said, hug­ging her son. Then she re­con­sid­ered.

“Well, let’s say six months,” she said.

JA­COB LANGSTON/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Riverdale El­e­men­tary stu­dents re­act af­ter find­ing out they will be re­ceiv­ing an in­flux of school sup­plies thanks to A Gift for Teach­ing, a char­ity that fun­nels do­nated ma­te­ri­als to schools with high poverty rates.

JA­COB LANGSTON/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Riverdale El­e­men­tary stu­dents, in­clud­ing many evac­uees from Puerto Rico, line up to re­ceive do­nated school sup­plies.

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