Arvada Press – By Shanna Fortier

School’s center provides food, clothes and assistance to needy and homeless

Lisa Vegas-Fields stood in a room formerly used for storage at Arvada High School. As she helped students sort through a stock of food and clothes, she noted the amount had decreased since Thanksgiving.

Vegas-Fields transformed the storage room into an on-campus resource center for students and their families this fall. During Thanksgiving, the new Arvada High School resource center gave out 30 boxes of food to families in need.

One of those families was Juanita Becraft, a single-parent of three, two of whom attend Arvada High.

A fire in her Arvada home in January left Becraft and her children in a vulnerable situation. She is on disability, she said, unable to work, and was forced to move with her children to Aurora.

“I don’t have that much income and it’s helped where I needed help for what I couldn’t provide or afford at that time,” Becraft said of the resource center.

In addition to the Thanksgiving basket, Becraft and other families also have received winter clothes, toiletries and school supplies. They also were referred to other resources that can help with food and clothing.

“We have a great support system with all of our schools, and recently finding out that there’s the resource center was a life saver for us,” Becraft said.

More students, families struggling

Arvada High School has a high percentage of families living in vulnerable environments, Vegas-Fields said. The school has just over 50 students homeless or in transition and 66 percent of the school’s population is on free or reduced lunch.

Overall, Jefferson County Schools’ free and reduced lunch rate is 31 percent. Jeffco has 1,932 homeless students districtwide. Only two high schools in the district have a higher free and reduced lunch rate than Arvada High — Alameda International Junior/Senior High School, which comes in at 84 percent; and Jefferson Junior/Senior High School at 87 percent.

The difference, though, is that Alameda and Jefferson meet the district’s Title 1 requirements. Middle and high schools must report 75 percent or more of their students receiving free or reduced lunch to receive Title 1 federal funding, which provindes grants to schools tosupplement existing programs and provide extra teachers, intervention programs, supplemental materials, technology and professional development. Arvada falls short of that requirement.

At the elementary level, the threshold is 65 percent. Of the 10 schools that feed into Arvada High School, six of them are classified as Title 1.

Other high schools in Arvada have much smaller percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch: Pomona High, 36 percent; Arvada West, 26 percent; and Ralston Valley, 8 percent.

“Arvada is an interesting community and a unique set of demographics,” said Rebecca Dunn, community and family connections coordinator for Jeffco Schools. “Arvada has a stronger blend of demographics. But I think that there’s a lot more community support and people who want to help their community.”

Lower-income housing and a mobile home park four miles from the school are reflected in the student demographics.

But Dunn said the type of need seen at Arvada High is something that is being seen more districtwide.

“It is trending up,” Dunn said, citing the most recent point-in-time count, a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single night, which listed Boulder, Jefferson and Douglas counties with the newest growth of homelessness.

“I think it’s such a reflection on housing in our county and how less accessible and less affordable housing is,” Dunn said. “We have many families with working parents living in a car. The perception that homeless are living on the streets is not the case here. It’s quite different.”

Engaging students and families

At Arvada High, which is more than 100 years old, Principal Gina Rivas wants to make sure students are engaged in the classroom as well as athletics and after-school activities. But Rivas recognized that not all students are getting their basic needs of food and warm clothing met.

That’s why the school hired Vegas-Fields, Arvada’s family engagement liaison, this year. Title 1 schools are automatically assigned a liaison, but since Arvada doesn’t receive that funding, it is paying for Vegas-Fields’ position out of the school budget.

“The hope is to get families in our building and get them more involved in what’s going on in school,” Rivas said.

Hiring a family engagement liaison and starting the resource center is one way to do that.

“Arvada’s vision is to create an environment that fosters academic success as well as social success,” Vegas-Fields said. “My job as a liaison is to bridge that gap between family and home and find what it is that our students need so that we can assist them in achieving their success.”

The resource center is open to students during and after school hours for food, clothing and hygiene essentials. The center is now also open to Arvada High feeder school students and families.

Eight students regularly volunteer to help sort through community donations.

“It’s a lot and we have to sort what’s fit to give back to the community,” senior Jessie Masias said.

Masias likes knowing that the items will go to someone who needs them more.

“The overall generosity of the community is overwhelming,” Rivas said. “There are so many alumni that want to support Arvada and everyone has come together and donated items and anything we needed.”

The resource center is now prepping for a large distribution to families on Dec. 20, but the center is running low on food and clothing items and is asking the community for donations. The December Holiday Food box distribution will include fresh ham, turkey or a voucher. Necessities such as hand cream, chapstick, gloves and tissues also will be handed out.

After the winter break, the resource center has plans to enhance its services to include enrichment seminars, free tax assistance and a prom boutique.

“Families have been very receptive and thankful,” Vegas-Fields said. “Our vision is to create an environment in which our families feel valued, welcomed and engaged.”

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