TS'AHBIIKIN, Ariz. – Tashina Williams turns off the main road onto a double-track dirt road that meanders through juniper trees, prickly pear cactus, sagebrush and cholla cactus. She stops the SUV when she reaches a lone Hogan set back among the junipers.
Williams is accompanied by Sharon Watson. When the two women step out of the vehicle, they’re greeted by five suspicious dogs (which start barking), and six energetic kids – all under the age of six – who burst out of the Hogan’s door when they see the vehicle arrive. They’re happy to see Williams and Watson, and both women are happy to see them.
The kids are being cared for by a woman in her early thirties who is also carrying an infant on her shoulder, wrapped in a blanket. Two of the kids belong to her. The other kids belong to her brother. She’s watching them while he and his wife are at work.
Williams and Watson carry several boxes into the Hogan containing non-perishable food, hygiene supplies and household items. The kids go straight for a box of granola bars. Williams opens the box and hands one to each child.
It’s two o’clock on a Friday afternoon. The kids calm down a bit while eating their granola bars. Watson visits with the mom and inquires about the health of the individuals who live on the property, and conditions in general, while Williams leads the kids back to the Ford Escape where she pulls out a box filled with books. She places the box on the ground and lets the kids look through the box and keep a book of their choosing.
The visit to the house is much more than just a food box delivery. It also gives Williams and Watson a chance to observe and assess the family’s living conditions, health and overall circumstances.
Williams and Watson work for Page Unified School District’s Student Support Services. Williams is the program’s director and Watson is its social worker. Student Support Services also includes Geraldine Clark, an at-risk liaison; Virgie Whitehorse, a parent liaison; and Ella Haskie, the district liaison.
Student Support Services provides at-risk students and their families with food (usually non-perishable items), hygiene products (such as soap, toothpaste, shampoo, and clothing), school supplies and other items that Williams or Watson deem necessary for the family.
Student Support Services helps around 30 to 40 students and their families at any given time.
To qualify for the program a student needs to be enrolled in one of the PUSD schools and have regular class attendance. Student Support Services provides food, supplies and services for not just the student, but everyone in the student’s family.
One of the biggest factors in how well a student succeeds in school is the quality of their home life, said Williams. Whether or not they have enough to eat, a safe, comfortable place to live and sleep, and family stability can affect the students’ success in school, and thus their future success in life. Student Support Services works to improve all of those areas.
One of the organization’s most used services is its Friday Backpack Program. During the school week, the district’s at-risk students can receive free breakfast and lunch at the schools, but many of those students don’t get enough food to eat when they’re home during the weekend. To avoid the child and his or her family going hungry during that time, Student Support Services sends the students home with a backpack full of food – enough to see them and their families through the weekend until they can return to school the following Monday. Some of the families Student Support Services work with are so large that a backpack full of food isn’t enough to see them through the weekend. Those families are given a box full of food.
Many of the families have a family member who works in Page who can pick up the box on Friday after work, but for those families without means to come to Page, Student Support Services will deliver the box to them.
Williams and Watson spend about 45 minutes visiting with the mother and seven kids at their Hogan in Ts’ahbiikin, then they get back in the SUV and drive to their next destination, also in the Ts’ahbiikin area, about a 30-minute drive down another rutted dirt road. Before the day is through, they’ll also make two more deliveries in Kaibeto before returning to Page. All the houses are located on remote, hard-to-reach areas of the Navajo Nation.
Williams steers the SUV down deeply rutted dirt roads that can be nearly impossible to navigate during some winter months when they’re muddy.
Deep into the Nation there are no street names, and Williams navigates from landmark to landmark. Williams began working for Student Support Services three years ago, and she got lost on these roads a lot when she was starting out.
“I think we’re one road too far to the right,” she said. Even after three years driving these roads she still gets lost once in a while.
When she reaches a crossroad, she turns the SUV left and works her way back to the east, and after driving a couple miles in that direction she encounters some familiar landmarks and knows she’s back on the right road. A short distance farther she stops in front of another house and parks the vehicle.
At this house, Williams and Watson drop off a food box, as well as box of clothes that have been washed and folded. Inside the house, Williams exchanges the clean clothes for a box of clothes that need to be laundered.
“Some of the families we work with don’t have washing machines,” Williams explained. “We take the set of dirty clothes back with us, wash them and bring them back on our next visit.”
Self-esteem, dignity and confidence play a big role in a students’ academic success, Williams said.
“We want the kids in our care to look and feel their best,” she said. “We want them to walk into their classroom with high self-esteem and confidence. Everything that we do comes back to student achievement. We try to remove all the barriers that could prevent a child from succeeding.”
The food, hygiene and food supplies are the most vital aid the program provides for students and families, but the program provides much, much more. Students in the program can also shower at the school, which is located in a bathroom in the SSS office.
Students need more than pencils, computers and textbooks to succeed in school, said Williams.
They also need a safe place to live, regular meals, and a warm bed. “If a child comes to class who is hungry and cold and worried about what they’re going to eat and where they’re going to sleep, those concerns will have a negative impact on how well they pay attention and achieve in the classroom.”
Student Support Services also provides its at-risk students with clothing for those who need it. The clothing has been donated to the program from outside sources. Student Support Services then launders the clothing, then folds and sorts it into sizes for male and female. Student Support Services also provides beds, mattresses, blankets, shoes and school supplies for its at-risk students.
The staff at Student Support Services consistently goes above and beyond to help the kids in their care. At the end of the school year, Geraldine Clark and Virgie Whitehorse helped several graduating seniors create graduation announcements, and in the weeks before prom, they helped students find and alter prom dresses.
“I think that if a kid knows their school cares about them, they’re much more likely to care about their school,” Williams said.
Everything that Student Support Services gives to its at-risk students and their families comes from donations.
From the very inception of Student Support Services, one of the program’s biggest and most regular donors has been the Navajo Generating Station.
“They’ve been a very important part of this program,” Williams said.
At certain periods of the year, NGS representatives met with Williams and her staff at Walmart where they purchase food and any other items the program needed. With NGS ending operations in December, SSS will no longer be able to rely on its generosity as it has in the past.
Fortunately, several other organizations are coming forward to help, and other organizations which have been long-time contributors are increasing their help, said Williams.
One of those groups is Faith Bible Chapel. At the beginning of the school year the pastors set out a very large donation box and ask the members of their congregation to fill it with non-perishable food items, soap, shampoo and other items. And when the box becomes full, they deliver it to Student Support Services, said Al Nezy, Faith Bible Chapel’s youth pastor.
During the course of a year the box get filled up and delivered multiple times.
“It’s common in Christian churches to have members of the congregation travel to other countries on missions, but we see a need right here in our own community and in our own backyard and that is our mission,” Nezy said. “Our motto is `If we see a need we try to fill it. If we see a hurt, we try to heal it.’ We’re not here to convert anyone. We’re here to help as many people as we can.”
Student Support Services also works closely with McKinney-Vento, a federal program that provides federal money for homeless families.
Lynne Hoffman, PUSD’s executive assistant, also works with McKinney-Vento’s as the school district’s homeless education liaison. She says the school district helps several families that qualify to receive assistance from McKinney-Vento.
The school district has a room dedicated to the McKinney-Vento program and inside students will find almost any school supply they could need: notebooks, pens, tape and glue, all the way up to scientific calculators.
“Whatever they need to be successful in their classes we have it for them here,” Hoffman said.
Besides school supplies, the McKinney-Vento room also contains food, clothes, shoes, blankets, mattresses and more.
In the past the McKinney-Vento program has provided families with a camp stove, a tent or camp trailer, or even furniture for transitioning families, said Hoffman.
“If we have a family that needs more than that to get back on their feet, we can usually find a way to get it for them,” Hoffman explained. “We’re pretty resourceful and we have some great people who help us. If it’s something a family needs and we don’t have it, we’ll put out feelers. Usually we’ve been able to provide what they need.”
Last year, Student Support Services received a good amount of help and food from the students themselves. Most of it came during a rather massive Christmas food drive. Students from Desert View Intermediate School collected 2,350 cans of non-perishable food. One of the big reasons it was such a big success was because the classrooms made it a competition between themselves. The winning class got to have a root beer float and movie party.
The idea to collect non-perishable food for Student Support Services was that of Desert View student council. They also orchestrated the collection drive, which included making posters and in-school announcements, as well as tracking how many cans each class collected.
“It was inspiring to see our kids be so generous to their peers,” said Jerod Viers, the Desert View Student Council sponsor and a fifth-grade teacher.
Fran Tucker’s fifth-grade class came in first place with 741 cans.
“It’s good to get these kids involved because they think like kids, and they know what other kids would want,” Tucker said. “They have an insight that adults often don’t have.”
In addition to canned goods, Tucker’s students – as did students from many other classrooms – also brought in stuffed animals and other items that could be used as Christmas gifts.
In addition to teaching fifth grade, Tucker is also a co-troop leader – along with Cathy Kerr – of a local Girl Scout Troop. The troop has 10 members, ranging from seven to 10 years in age, and they gave 96 boxes ($480 worth) of Girl Scout cookies to Student Support Services.
“Every year we choose a charity to help and be involved with, and this year the girls wanted to help Student Support Services,” Tucker said.
The Girl Scout cookies added to the food boxes are a big hit, said Williams.
If you’d like to help Student Support Services, they can always use non-perishable food items, hygiene supplies (such as soap, shampoo, and toothpaste), and household supplies (such as paper towels and toilet paper).
To find out how you can help email Student Support Services Director Tashina Williams at [email protected]