Barrister Title

Employees from Barrister Title deliver gifts for eight homeless students attending Mansfield City Schools.

Editor's Note: This is the final story in a three-part series about how Mansfield City Schools is addressing the needs of students beyond the classroom. Click here to read part one and here to read part two.

MANSFIELD – Lea Ann Sexton piled gifts onto the conference room tables. Each package was wrapped with cheerful paper – candy cane stripes, snowmen and Christmas trees, dogs in Santa Claus hats.

For the last five years, Barrister Title employees have sponsored a handful of Mansfield City School children, purchasing gifts for some of the district’s neediest families.

It’s a tradition they look forward to every year.

“The minute the list comes, I send out an email and everybody’s in there, ‘I want this one. Oh I have a kid this age,' ” Sexton said. “Everybody somehow bonds to a child and it’s fun.”

They aren’t the only group in the area stepping up. Forty more students received Christmas presents through The New Store. Each child was identified as homeless through the school's Student Achievement through Family Engagement program.

Funded by a federal grant, the S.A.F.E. program serves the district's homeless students and their families. Any child who lacks a "fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence" is considered homeless. This includes children living in a shelter, hotel, campground, trailer park or “doubled-up” with another family in a single family home.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act outlines the rights of homeless children and youth at school, including the services school districts must provide.

The MCS S.A.F.E. goes beyond those requirements to help meet students' physical needs and connect families with resources outside of school.

The need is far greater than most people realize.

During the 2020-2021 school year, Mansfield City Schools identified 380 homeless students. Ninety one percent of those students were living "doubled up" with another family due to loss of housing, economic hardship or other reasons.

The district's S.A.F.E. program tracks the number of identified homeless students every year, but the tally is not cumulative. Every year, the district wipes out its count and starts over.

During the 2019-2020 school year, there were 432 identified homeless students. Holly Christie, director of student support services, said the tallies for the last two school years are lower than average. She suspects it's because identifying students is more challenging during remote learning.

"One of the best ways that we've identified these students are through teachers, through nurses, through bus drivers -- people that see the kids," explained Christie, who also serves as the district's S.A.F.E. liaison.

Teachers in the Tyger Digital Academy received training for what to watch for on-screen, but many common signs of homeless are difficult to pick up on virtually.

The district has also seen more cases of people in severe crisis during the pandemic. Last year, 21 students were living in a hotel or motel, nine stayed in a shelter and three were listed as "un-accompanied youth," meaning they lived somewhere without a parent or guardian.

Phil Mitchell said he had no idea how prevalent homelessness was among students until he came back to work as the district's S.A.F.E. coordinator.

“I was a school teacher for 25 years and I didn't even know that the thing existed," he said. "Nobody taught me about homeless kids.”

In his new role, Mitchell offers professional development sessions for every segment of the district’s workforce – from teachers to lunch ladies to bus drivers. Every employee learns to recognize the signs of homelessness.

“If you work for the Mansfield City Schools, I’ve already talked with you," he said.

If a district employee believes a student may be facing homelessness, they reach out to Mitchell. He contacts the student's family to offer assistance and connections to other resources in the community.

Mitchell is part of the Richland County Coalition for Housing and Homelessness, so he meets monthly with organizations like Catholic Charities, Harmony House, the Domestic Violence Shelter, First Call 211, the Salvation Army and the Richland County Foundation. He also knows where students and their families can get counseling if needed.

“As I'm dealing with my clientele or parents that I've identified and they need help and other areas, I know exactly who to call," he said.

Mitchell also invites families experiencing homelessness to come to the board of education office. He takes them to a room nicknamed the Tyger Den or care cave.

Tucked away past a boiler room, half of an old gymnasium is stocked full of basic essentials. Personal-care items line the shelves by the door. Beyond them are boxes of new clothing and shoes sorted by size. There are racks with dozens of winter coats, hats and gloves, bedding and towels.

Nearly all of it came from outside the school system.

“We don’t have a budget to buy a bunch of stuff, so we rely on donations,” Mitchell said. “Pretty much everything you see here has been donated – Altrusa of America, The New Store, Salvation Army, City Center, it just never stops.

“Mansfield’s the greatest place of all. If you need something, someone’s going to help you.”

Every child gets a book bag full of school supplies organized by grade. Younger siblings get “preschool kits” with markers, crayons, coloring books, Playdoh and chalk. Older kids get buddy bags with coloring supplies and age-appropriate activity books and puzzles.

The idea behind the Tyger Den is that providing needed resources and toys can ease the burden on families and reduce tensions where they are staying.

"There's more people in the house, which creates more noise, it creates stress," Christie said.

"We're trying to alleviate some of that stress for the host family by providing those things so that the family in transition isn't making them upset, because at that time, that's a safe place for them."

When there is less stress in the home, students do better academically.

"We try to take those stressors off of that whole household so that everybody’s homogeneous," Mitchell said. "Because if the child goes to school and he's feeling OK, he's going to do better in school. He's gonna become a better person. That's what we’re after.”

Mitchell pulled open the doors of a metal storage cabinet to reveal black, navy and purple duffel bags.

“The worst thing in the world is to go from one house to another house with a black garbage bag,” he said. “So we make sure that the kids have one of these things.”

Phil Mitchell

Phil Mitchell, S.A.F.E. coordinator for Mansfield City Schools, stands in the Tyger Den --  a room of donated supplies to give to families facing homelessness in the district. 

After walking them through the items, Mitchell sits down with families to find out how they are doing. While he chats with parents or guardians, he encourages the kids to walk over to the shelf of toys and pick out a few.

No child leaves without at least three books -- one at their reading level, one above and one below.

Mitchell said he's seen lots of tears and heard lots of "thank you's" from visitors to the Tyger Den. Some even return to donate supplies when they're back on their feet.

"I see more people say, ‘Who would have thought that a school system takes care of their people this way?’”

The Tyger Den's primary purpose is to help families facing homelessness, but the district shares those resources with other students in need whenever possible.

“If a teacher calls me up and says 'Mr. Mitchell, I need coats for three kids,' you don't need to say more," he said. "We try to take care of all the kids in the Mansfield City school system. I get emails and phone calls from lots of teachers.

"We focus on kids in transition, but that doesn't mean we don't take care of everybody."

In January, the S.A.F.E. program will expand to include a part-time community health caseworker from Third Street Family Health Services. The health worker will join Mitchell when he meets with families and serve as another liaison for resources in the area.

The position will be funded through an American Rescue Plan grant.

"With the success we've had with Malabar Care Connects, what I wanted to do was put a caseworker here," Christie explained. “We are able to get kids enrolled, make sure they have the school supplies they need, but what we didn’t have was – 'Where can we send them to get help with their situation?'"

Helping students get their basic needs met is crucial for their academic and social success.

"If you're not feeling good about yourself, if you're not clean, if you're not getting a good night's sleep, it's going to be a little hard to focus in school," Christie said.

For Mitchell, it's about more than helping homeless students. It's investing in the next generation.

“Every child is potentially the light of the world," he said. "We just got to get in there and pull that light out."

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Staff reporter focused on education and features. Clear Fork alumna. Always looking for a chance to practice my Spanish. You can reach me at katie@richlandsource.com