Like most Valley schools, the Donna Independent School District has students who are considered homeless.
This year, the number of homeless children at Donna ISD is on the rise, topping at nearly 1,000. The students don’t literally live out on the streets but rather stay with relatives, neighbors or friends because their parents can’t afford a place of their own. Even then, living conditions are poor.
“Some of these homes are shacks or tiny travel trailers that aren’t considered livable,” Director of Student Engagement Bernadett Caceres said. “They don’t have running water, air and heating systems or even electricity. They run electrical cords to other homes to get power. They can probably fit two or three people, yet up to 10 children live in some of these homes plus their parents.”
Studies show living in these type of conditions can impact a student’s academic success. “It plays a huge role in their academics because sometimes they don’t sleep or eat well,” Caceres said. “How are they going to be able to wake up and go to school the next morning and be alert in class?”
District administrators are cognizant of the situation and want students to know they are doing everything they can to make sure their needs are met. “We have more than 800 homeless students right now, but we know there are many others in our district,” Caceres said. “We believe parents don’t want to fill out the form that identifies their child as homeless because of the stigma behind it. They don’t want their children to be labeled as homeless.”
Caceres said one way they assist the students and their parents is through funding made available from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act of 2001. This year, the federal legislation awarded Donna ISD $53,000. The money is used strictly to buy clothing for the children.
“With this money, we’re able to provide them with two pairs of pants or skirts, two shirts and tennis shoes,” Caceres said. “But that’s not enough. It gets to the point where we get so entrenched in what is going on that we use our own personal funds to help these students and their parents.”
Donna ISD receptionist Diana Maldonado is among the contributors. “I’m tight myself but I see a lot of people come into the office who really need the help,” Maldonado said. “I go into a store to buy something but then I start to think of others that need the help more than I do, so I end up getting things for the students. I feel it’s something I need to do.”
Community members also help in a big way. “We have different groups of people in the community that know we have this issue with our homeless students,” Caceres said. “They’ve brought in clothing and jackets for when it gets cold. A local company brought in a truckload of them and we gave them away mainly to the elementary students. We’re very blessed to have community members like them come forward. They’re a Godsend.”
In addition to purchasing clothing, the district provides the parents with referral forms if they need assistance in other areas. “We give them a list of places where they can go get food and help pay their utility bills, housing, and medical assistance,” Caceres said.
“Ultimately what we want is to make sure the students succeed by graduating from high school and then going on to post-secondary education,” Caceres said. “We want them to be able to help themselves and be productive citizens in our society.”