Families in distress get help to keep their children in school

Although their furniture and appliances had not yet arrived, the Ricks family had no problem getting into the holiday spirit after moving into their new home. Tori, 3, was curious what might be inside one of her presents under the tree in the family's living room. She was joined by her brother C.J. 13, and parents, Latoria and Elliott Ricks.
Although their furniture and appliances had not yet arrived, the Ricks family had no problem getting into the holiday spirit after moving into their new home. Tori, 3, was curious what might be inside one of her presents under the tree in the family's living room. She was joined by her brother C.J. 13, and parents, Latoria and Elliott Ricks. The Kansas City Star

So many breaking points had already dropped Elliott and Latoria Ricks to their knees.

Losing their jobs. Losing their home. Losing their car.

Then came this: Their 13-year-old son, C.J., was starting his new school as an eighth-grader this fall and the Rickses had stretched their last dollars to make sure he had some nice clothes.

When they were completing his enrollment, it turned out that their homeless limbo had kept their son out of school too many days the year before.

He would have to re-enter as a seventh-grader at a different school. And that school — Kansas City’s Central Middle School — required that he dress in uniform, all khaki and navy.

Latoria Ricks couldn’t keep her secrets anymore. She broke down. Her family was in trouble. They had no money left for more clothes.

And that’s when some good fortune finally came to their aid.

There’s a new program, the school’s counselor said.

“She said, ‘I know someone who might help,’” Latoria Ricks said. “Cassie Sipos called me that same day.”

A Florida couple’s foundation, channeled through the United Way of Greater Kansas City, has come to the Kansas City and Independence school districts, eager to help earnest families grab the footing they need to stabilize their homes and send their children to school ready to learn.

Sipos was the case manager hired by Metro Lutheran Ministry with funding from the Siemer Family Foundation to help Kansas City families like the Rickses.

Bruce Bailey is doing the same at the Community Services League to help families in Independence.

“We’re drawing a line in the sand,” said Metro Lutheran executive director Jim Glynn, “and saying, ‘The cycle stops here.’”

Barbara Seimer is a former schoolteacher from Ohio, now in Florida. She and her husband, Al, dedicated their foundation to give children the chance at a steady education that she had seen lost for so many transient children in poverty.

The Rickses needed bus passes so they could get to their jobs. They needed the down payment and first month’s rent to get their children into a home of their own. C.J. needed school clothes.

Ana Guerrero needed her electricity bill paid. She and her two children, Anderson, 13, and Ashley, 10, needed a working refrigerator.

She had survived so much — fleeing El Salvadoran gangs when she was pregnant with her first child 13 years ago, making it to the U.S. by bus and on foot through mountains. A two-month journey.

If she can finally secure some steady work, she can keep her children anchored. They’re already doing so well in Fairmount Elementary and Nowlin Middle School.

She’s heard of friends and family in El Salvador whose children have already been swept up by the Maras gang, lost or even murdered.

She wants her children to carry on all the way through Independence’s Van Horn High School, then on to college and professional careers.

Primero Dios,” she says. God willing.

Combined, the Kansas City and Independence sites aim to help 70 families this school year. But the mission, revealed in homeless children numbers across the board, can be overwhelming.

In the 2013-2014 school year, Kansas City reported 1,569 children homeless at some point, meaning their families were staying in shelters or cars or they were crowding into homes of family or friends because of economic hardship.

Independence reported 995 homeless children during the year.

In all, Kansas City area districts on both sides of the state line reported some 8,000 homeless children.

Statewide, both Kansas and Missouri saw an 8 percent increase in homeless students from 2012 to 2013, matching the national trend that now shows some 2.5 million homeless children, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.

Families with children now make up 37 percent of the homeless population.

The consequences have been well documented in numerous studies.

Half of homeless children attend three or more different schools in one year, according to the National Network for Youth. And research shows that it may take four to six months for a child to recover academically from such home disruption.

At any one time, about 12 percent of homeless children are not enrolled in school and up to 45 percent do not attend school regularly.

Teachers and counselors often know when children are in distress and the schools do their best to bring aid.

“But we need partners,” said John Tramel, director of family services for the Independence school district. “We don’t have resources.”

The Siemer Foundation, through its Siemer Institute for Family Stability, is providing $100,000 a year to provide a case manager for each of the two school districts to serve as the families’ persistent resource provider.

The United Way is raising $100,000 in matching funds to provide the relief and services that the case managers determine will help each family.

The districts are constantly cobbling together grants and donor support to help families. The strength of the Seimer Foundation’s grant is that it gives the case managers flexibility to provide different kinds of help.

One of the families in Independence, residing in an unlivable, infested home, needed an exterminator and a trash bin to clean out their basement, Bailey said. Some families could move into a home if they could somehow take care of utility debts.

“These are families close to the edge where they could fall off,” Bailey said, “but they’re ready.”

Ready like Guerrero, 38, who is getting help from a job coach through the Independence program. She once was in law school in El Salvador, four years along the way, when she became pregnant and she and her child’s father wanted to flee the gangs.

She has been a single parent since 2005, picking up what little income she can by helping take care of friends’ children.

The foundation requires the programs to follow a rubric that scores the progress families are making, but it’s a wide-ranging menu of service options.

“We are trying not to be heavy-handed,” said Rob Podlogar, the national director of the Siemer program. “We want it to be flexible. We give them a buffet (of service categories) and they pick.”

With the addition of Kansas City, the foundation is now serving 50 cities and would like to serve as many as 70.

The foundation also wants the service providers to emphasize a two-generation approach, finding ways not only to stabilize children’s lives but to involve them in learning skills to help break generational poverty.

The families that the districts are drawing into the program are motivated and ready to put their lives in order, Sipos said.

“There is no lack of faith or creativity,” she said. “They just lack assets. They need some traction.”

Elliott Ricks, 33, remembers not long ago when he and Latoria, 33, both worked in home health care. They were the ones, they said, who were always helping family and friends when they were in need.

But when their fortunes “went sour,” it went fast. They went unpaid for months while working for what turned out to be a failing business. Then they lost their jobs.

When they had to give up their only vehicle, their prospects seemed hopeless.

“You’re at the mercy of everyone else,” Ricks said.

Having to ask for rides. Sharing homes for as long as it seemed palatable. You know when your welcome is worn thin, he said.

They’re both working restaurant jobs now. Latoria just got a promotion. C.J. is doing well in school again.

Their dream of someday owning their own home health care business doesn’t seem impossible anymore.

Guerrero’s joy comes in song. Anderson, who also is playing football at Nowlin, has been singing in the choir. Ashley, who likes to do whatever her big brother does, sings with him.

She laughed, talking of the two of them in Anderson’s room, singing to American pop.

And he’s actually very shy, Guerrero said, speaking through an interpreter.

Every day the school bus comes, she says, sharing her great comfort, and her children go to class and they are safe.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

Homeless schoolchildren

Area districts that reported the most children in 2014 who at some point were living in shelters or cars or who were sharing the housing of other people because of economic hardship:

Kansas City: 1,569

Kansas City, Kan.: 1,266

Independence: 995

Leavenworth: 567

Shawnee Mission: 456

Fort Osage: 424

Olathe: 392

North Kansas City: 389

Hickman Mills: 334

Gardner Edgerton: 219

Sources: Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Kansas Department of Education