When students and families in Albany County School District No. 1 struggle with homelessness, a housing situation in flux is usually not the only stressor in their lives.
Students may not have enough food. They might need school supplies or winter clothing. They might not have enough gas to get to school or work. Maybe they want to join a sports team but need a physical first.
Whatever the need, the district’s Student Success Services program aims to meet it.
The program has expanded during the last five years through the efforts of Lisa Theis, the district’s Student Success liaison, who said her goal is for the program to serve as a hub for students and families facing financial hardship, particularly those at risk of homelessness.
“We cover a lot of ground,” she said.
In cooperation with other community agencies, the program assists students with day-to-day necessities such as sports physicals, clothing, school supplies, household supplies, bedding, kitchenware, furniture, vaccinations, gas, haircuts, eyeglasses, laundry and more.
“What we want to do is make sure we even the playing field for all of our kids so they can fully participate in academics, in extracurricular activities, sports, clubs,” she said. “Let’s help fill those gaps, so if we can take a little bit of that stressor off of them, they can focus on other things.”
The Laramie Woman’s Club is planning to support the efforts of Student Success Services through its upcoming Bunco Party, which is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Eppson Center for Seniors, 1560 N. Third St. Doors open at 12:30 p.m.
Tickets are $20 and include food, drinks, door prizes and a 50-50 raffle. Club member Lynda Hidalgo said proceeds from the annual fundraiser, now in its sixth year, are used to support local community groups.
Theis began working as the Student Success liaison five years ago and has been growing the program whenever she encounters a new way it can support students. She’s based at Laramie Middle School, where she has a room lined with cabinets stuffed with snacks, take-home food and school supplies such as binders, notebooks, pencils, pens folders and paper.
“We all know we can’t focus when we’re hungry,” she said. “This tides them over so they can stay focused.”
A closet down the hall has shelves brimming with boots, winter coats, shoes, hoodies, socks, gloves, hats and 2-inch zippered-binders. Supplies are distributed around the district as teachers and other employees see a need.
The running joke at the school, she said, is which space she’ll take over next for additional storage.
At home, she’s filled an unused fifth-wheel camper with mattress pad covers, pillows, bed linens, comforters, blankets, dishtowels, bath towels, wash cloths and laundry baskets. She stashes furniture in a storage room at the old football stadium.
Theis picks up stuff whenever she sees it, such as furniture sales when dormitories at the University of Wyoming and WyoTech close. Twin beds are always a need.
“Dressers are like gold,” she said. "I snag those up pretty quickly because they just go right back out."
She shops garage sales and department store clearance aisles for bedding and household items — slow cookers can always be put to good use — often spending her own money and working on her own time. She makes sure to supply only new pillows and mattress pad covers even if the rest of the furniture is used.
“I want families to feel like they’re getting something new,” she said.
Theis said the district has identified 42 homeless students so far this year, which is on pace to exceed the average of 60-65 students per year.
The district’s guidelines are based on federal legislation that differs slightly from other organizations that also track homelessness.
In the case of students, transitional living situations include living in a shelter, motel, campground, car, park, abandoned building or with friends or relatives because of loss of housing or economic hardship.
All district employees undergo training to help them identify students in transitional housing situations. Theis receives referrals from community agencies and businesses. Families are asked about their housing when they register students, and students also self-identify.
Theis said the resources offered through Student Success Services, even the occasional formal dress or dance ticket, help students gain confidence, connect with their school community and fit in.
“It feels good when you have clean clothes and your belly’s full,” she said. “When you come to school, you can blend in with the rest of the kids.”
Brittany Brigham, a graduate student studying social work who’s working with Theis this year, said she’s impressed by the cooperation between agencies working toward the same goals, including Student Success Services.
“It’s really inspiring to see the different agencies in town come together and people working together,” she said.
Theis said community members who support Student Success Services don’t get to see the end result of their donation, but donations do make a difference and are appreciated.
“It’s one of those stressors that’s off their plate, and that allows them to focus on other things,” she said of recipients. “Maybe it frees up a little extra time to do something fun with the family instead of taking care of some of those basic needs.”