Las Vegas Sun

September 26, 2018

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Las Vegas group on a mission to fight poverty, keep kids in school

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Communities in Schools of Southern Nevada workers hold up a banner after completing their Fill the Bus donation drive in 2017. This year, the annual drive takes place Friday.

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Stacks of donated backpacks sit on a table during Comunities in Schools of Southern Nevada’s Fill the Bus donation drive in 2017. This year’s drive, which benefits more than 50,000 students in the Clark County School District, takes place Friday at two Las Vegas Valley locations.

For many children in Las Vegas, the recession isn’t over.

Not even close.

Some are homeless, some will have their only meals at school, some are the primary caregivers for their siblings. They face economic and social problems that haven’t been cured by the recovery — wage stagnation, underemployment, cyclical poverty and food insecurity among them.

Staff and volunteers from Communities in Schools see those children every day, at schools across the valley.

“I don’t believe that people in Las Vegas realize the extent of the poverty here,” said Cheri Ward, executive director of CIS of Southern Nevada. “Everybody’s saying, ‘It’s getting better.’ It is not. With the students and families we deal with, I feel like it’s growing worse.”

CIS serves 57,000 students in 50 schools in Las Vegas with an approach to dropout prevention that involves providing students with whatever they need to keep coming to class. Much of it can be found in the back-to-school aisles at retail stores — pencils, notebooks, backpacks and such — but the offerings go well beyond that. Shoes, school uniforms, eyeglasses, personal hygiene products, laundry supplies and even alarm clocks are among the items provided to students in need. CIS provides meals and snacks through partnerships with Three Square and Project 150, and also works with families to help them find housing, pay utilities, get medical help and much more.

The program serves more than 62,000 students statewide, with 87 percent of them graduating on time and 97 percent being promoted to the next grade last year.

On Friday, local residents can join the cause by donating items to CIS’ annual Fill the Bus donation drive. Items can be dropped off between 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Sam’s Club on South Rainbow Boulevard and the 215 Beltway, and the Galleria Mall.

The items will go directly to students and their families through site coordinators at schools, who work with students based on recommendations from faculty, staff, or even other students. Students then undergo a needs assessment, and then are paired with a site coordinator who works with them one-on-one.

For an idea of children’s level of need, Ward and Tiffany Tyler, CEO of CIS of Nevada, offered several anecdotes during a recent interview. Among them:

A second-grader who was routinely tardy eventually revealed that he was responsible for getting himself and his younger siblings, a kindergartner and a first-grader, to school but had no access to transportation. The family lived more than 2 miles from the building, and his only pair of shoes were a hand-me-down from his mother.

It’s not uncommon for children to bring backpacks stuffed with toys and other belongings to school, because their families are facing eviction from their homes and the children know their items could be locked up or misplaced during the eviction process.

At one school, a grandmother was raising 13 of her grandchildren in a one-bedroom apartment. To help from arousing suspicion about how many people were living in the apartment, the children hid their clothes outside.

Tyler said one of the organization’s challenges was dealing with what amounts to victim-blaming — a misperception that at-risk students and their families simply don’t recognize the value of education or are otherwise responsible for their situation.

The reality is far more complicated than a matter of motivation, Tyler said. Many children come from working-poor families that struggle to provide basics and are falling farther behind amid increases in housing prices, costs of utilities and other needs. Some come from households where substance abuse and other forms of dysfunction have left them caring for themselves and their siblings.

Tyler herself was a high school dropout, having quit going into her 11th- grade year when she was assaulted at gunpoint and became afraid to go to school. Her assailant was identified but not arrested, leaving her fearful for her safety. It was only after giving birth to her first child that she went back to school, but since then she has earned four college degrees.

“Surely, there is a reason for us as a community to invest in children and peel back the layers on these myths and misconceptions we have about why kids don’t make it,” she said. “And if I can make it under those conditions, there are a heck of a lot more kids where, if someone would see them and respond, they would make it.

“So for me, it’s about how do we help people understand that it’s not just a matter of the student caring, or their parent caring or their teaching caring. That’s such a superficial understanding of the situation, and it does little to help us link arms around how we change the trajectory for kids.”

While CIS aims its efforts at children and their families, Tyler and Ward say teachers also benefit from the organization’s work. Teachers often are forced to pay out of their own pockets or establish black-market type bartering networks to provide school supplies and other items for students, so CIS reduces that burden.

“The fact is that if we weren’t providing the supplies for the children, then the teachers would be purchasing them,” Ward said.

Fill the Bus

Communities in Schools of Southern Nevada’s annual Fill the Bus donation drive is Friday.

Items needed for the drive include: backpacks for all ages, college and wide-ruled notebooks, pocket folders, index cards, dividers, markers, crayons, mechanical pencils, pens, highlighters, pencil sharpeners, pencil cases, erasers, glue sticks, colored pencils, uniforms (khaki or navy shorts and pants, as well as white, navy and red shirts) alarm clocks, hygiene kits and products (toothpaste, toothbrushes, hair brushes, deodorant and hand sanitizer), athletic shoes and new socks and underwear.

“And if you can’t decide what to give, just write a check,” said Tiffany Tyler, CEO of CIS Nevada. “Because you never know when somebody might need a $20 pair of shoes.”

Donors can drop off items from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. at two locations: Sam’s Club on South Rainbow Drive and the 215 Beltway, and Galleria at Sunset mall in Henderson.

Other ways to get involved in CIS

• Volunteer. Needs include guest speakers in classrooms and at career fairs, and help for school farmer’s markets.

• Donate monthly. A $25 monthly donation provides students new shoes or a weekend pack of food for two months. A $50 commitment provides school uniforms for six students every month, and a $100 gift covers a college entrance exam fee for two students per month.

• Become a sponsor. Levels include: $1,200 for a field trip for the CIS Academy class; and $1,625 to purchase 50 monthly bus passes.

For more information, visit cisnevada.org or call 702- 550-3799.