School supplies pouring in, but food donations needed
Influx of Maria evacuees creates ‘crisis’ in Osceola County
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.
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.
Riverdale Elementary students, including many evacuees from Puerto Rico, line up to receive donated school supplies.