When a student experiences homelessness, schools often try to keep them in the district regardless of where they might be living.
Many times this involves having to bus students in from wherever they are staying. This brings a level of consistency to the child, so that they can have the same teachers, friends and a familiar place to learn.
During a discussion on how to transport these children to and from school, the La Crosse Area Retired Educators’ Association (LAREA) came up with the idea to create We Care packages for students in need.
The packages include things like notepads, card games, books and other items to bring students comfort during the ride to and from school.
“We determined that they needed some comfort things, like stress relievers or a stuffed animal, “Mary Henthorne, who is the LAREA public education outreach chairperson, explained. “When we first started we were under the impression that they were getting health items from another source, and then that stopped so we started putting heath items in our bags.”
The packages have evolved to include personal care items such as soap, hand sanitizer and toothbrushes. Depending on donations, there have also been pillows, socks, mittens and small toys that are distributed.
LAREA distributes the packages to the counselors and social workers at the schools, who then discreetly deliver them to the students — typically at the end of the school day, so students can bring them home without their peers knowing.
The first year they handed out 110 different packages to elementary school students. Over the past seven years, they have passed out over 1,200 We Care packages to 38 different schools. They have also started creating packages for middle and high school students.
During the two years of COVID-19, the number of packages needed rose to 350 each year. Luckily, that number has gone down this year.
“This year since it (COVID) has subsided, some of the middle and high schools have said they don’t need as many, so we’ve decided to decrease the numbers this coming year,” Henthorne said. “We talk to the schools and see how many they need, and just try to be there for them.”
The school districts involved include La Crosse, Onalaska, Holmen, West Salem, Bangor, Melrose-Mindoro and Arcadia.
LAREA relies on monetary donations from the community and then members will shop for items, buying in bulk to save money and to ensure the same items are in each package. Other members will sew the bags the items are stored in, or work to create bookmarks and games.
“It’s a project that we can do together as an organization. Members have involved their children, their grandchildren, it models kindness and gets us involved in the community,” Henthorne explained. “Our hope is that there will come a day when these bags are not needed, but until then we will do our best to provide We Care Packages for these children and to let them know they matter to us.”