Friday, June 8, 2012 | 2 a.m.
A 6-month-old effort to help homeless teens in Las Vegas started before winter vacation — a two-week window when daily meals at school aren’t an option for cash-strapped families.
At the time, Project 150, the nonprofit formed to help affected teens, raised $10,000 in food gift cards to distribute. Half a school year later, a greater challenge looms: summer break, which begins today.
“Schools have become such a resource for services for families,” said Paula Zier, coordinator for the Clark County School District’s Title 1 Homeless Outreach Program for Education (HOPE).
Homelessness among children in Southern Nevada has increased the past five years, a byproduct of the region’s unstable economy, Zier said. The School District documented 5,984 students in elementary through high school who were homeless in the 2011-12 academic year, she said.
For the first time this summer, 100 middle and high schools will remain open for credit-retrieval programs offered to students at those schools, Zier said. That’s in addition to five high schools — Canyon Springs, Silverado, Cimarron, Desert Pines and Spring Valley — open for districtwide summer school, she said.
“As we recognize all these needs, I think each year we’ll see more things implemented to take care of these kids,” Zier said. She acknowledged the schools’ primary mission is to provide educational opportunities in the summer, but the buildings also offer many resources to needy students.
The need level shocked born-and-raised Las Vegan Don Purdue, who stopped by Rancho High School in December to inquire about helping homeless students. While he was there, he witnessed enough to further solidify his desire to help: One student didn’t have money for a cap and gown to graduate. A girl dropped off a thank-you note to staff members who helped her family find a place to live. And a boy didn’t have a note he needed from his parents because he didn’t know where they were staying.
“Twenty minutes in this office, and I’m walking out in tears,” Purdue said.
The experience planted the seed for Project 150, which refers to the number of homeless Rancho students earlier this year. Purdue sought the help of old friends and new volunteers who would be willing to help high school students in particular.
“The kids have big smiles on their faces,” he said. “They’re doing their job (going to school). All they really need is a helping hand.”
So far, Project 150’s volunteer force has grown to more than 40 people serving 14 high schools, and the nonprofit has helped raise about $25,000, Purdue said. The group divvies up the money to buy an assortment of nonperishable food items, clothing, toiletries and school supplies, he said.
“Every dime stays in Las Vegas,” said Purdue, whose full-time job is special projects manager at Harmony Homes. “It’s a local problem that needs a local solution.”
Project 150 volunteers plan to continue providing resources at schools that remain open this summer and embarking on grass-roots marketing efforts to spread the word to teens who may need help. Purdue directs all those in need to the nonprofit’s website.
The organization also hopes to host a teen-oriented job fair with Terrible Herbst in June, but a date has not been set, Purdue said.
Cheryl Bella, marketing director of Three Square, said the food bank has increased its promotional efforts about a text-messaging service, which lets families know the closest meal site for their children. That phone number is 702-556-9129. The text-messaging service began last summer.
The meals are part of the Summer Food Service Program, a federal initiative to keep children fed during the summer months when school is not in session, Bella said.
“There’s just not a lot of knowledge that food exists during the summer for free,” Bella said.
The community collaborations that sprouted this year are a sign of what’s to come, Zier said.
“We’re embracing it,” she said. “It is a community effort to assist our schools and our children. … I think when kids feel like people care, it really helps.”
One tenet of Project 150’s mission to help teens in need — many who may be embarrassed to come forward — is by encouraging students to spread the word and help identify peers facing these issues, Purdue said.
Volunteers like Cheleen Morgan and her 15-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, have taken it upon themselves to start that process. They spent Thursday afternoon shopping at Walmart, buying goods with Project 150 funds to drop off at Durango High School.
Morgan reached out to Project 150 after her daughter, who attended Clark High School earlier this year, voiced concerns about several students’ welfare. As a Las Vegas native, the realization that thousands of Clark County students were homeless disturbed her.
“We had no clue how big it was,” she said. “In high school, all I worried about was whether I had a zit on my nose.”
Morgan said donated food and supplies at Durango High School, located in the Spring Valley area, dwindled faster as more students learned about its existence. She hopes to informally provide donations to those in need during the summer.
“It’s going to be really rough,” she said of the coming months. “We’re going to need a lot more.”
The experience, she said, has highlighted her family’s good fortune.
“We’re OK because we have a roof over our head and food on our table,” Morgan said.