STOW — When Bobbi Angely became a school counselor at Kimpton Middle School nearly four years ago, students started coming to ask her for little things they needed — a hairbrush, a calculator.

She and eventually others in the school started buying what the students needed out of their own pockets, putting together gift bags and signing the notes inside not with their names but with “Kimpton Cares.”

The packages grew to include clothes, hygiene products and food, helping about 15 to 20 students a year. Eventually, students started to confide in Angely, telling her they were staying in homeless shelters or cars, or they didn’t have enough to eat at dinner the night before.

"We started hearing about greater and greater needs the past two years,” she said. “As we've heard of needs, we jump in and try to help.”

Now, it’s turned into a communitywide effort to help those in need, from food pantries to clothes to financial assistance.

Officials from Stow, Munroe Falls, SMF N.I.C.E. (Stow Munroe Falls Neighborhood Improvement and Community Enrichment) and the Stow-Munroe Falls school district announced the initiative Monday.

"It's not a crisis,” said Stow Mayor John Pribonic. “But it's something that we owe the community."

 

Homeless in schools

According to Summit County Public Health data, 3 percent of families and 5.5 percent of individuals in Stow live below the poverty level, compared to 19.8 percent of families and 25.4 percent of individuals in Akron and 10.4 percent of families and 14.3 percent of individuals in Summit County as a whole.

Stow Munroe-Falls Superintendent Tom Bratten said over the last few years, the school district has seen between 12 and 24 students experiencing homelessness. About 22 percent of the 5,200 students in the district are on free and reduced lunch.

“It doesn't sound like a lot when you're talking about 5,200 kids, but one is too many,” he said of homeless students in the school district, which has food pantries at Kimpton and the high school and clothing at each school building.

According to the National Center for Homeless Education, 2.57 percent of the nearly 51 million students in local education agencies in the U.S. are homeless. In Ohio, 1.7 percent of the more than 1.7 million students in the state are homeless.

The majority — about 75 percent — of homeless students in Ohio are doubled up, such as living with another family, according to the center. But Ohio students are also living in shelters or transitional housing, awaiting foster care, living in hotels or motels or are unsheltered, living in cars, parks or abandoned buildings.

Pribonic said that definition of homelessness is broader than most people realize.

“Everybody pictures that somebody's under a bridge, [in] a park or whatever,” he said. “That's not necessarily the case.”

 

Community response

Kimpton PTSA President Tracy Starnes found out last year about students in need at Kimpton, with counselors and others in the school paying for food and other items for them out of pocket.

“When I found that out, I decided that shouldn’t be what’s happening,” said Starnes, who reached out to Pribonic, who expanded it into a communitywide effort.

SMF N.I.C.E. member Sarah Haren said when community members first started talking about what they could do, each knew of individual Stow resources, but no one had a comprehensive list.

So a pamphlet of Stow-specific resources, from food to clothing to counseling to temporary housing and shelter to veteran assistance, was put together, available at locations throughout Stow and Munroe Falls and online. They’ll also be mailed out with all May water bills in Stow and Munroe Falls and sent home with Stow-Munroe Falls students.

Through SMF CARES, an initiative of SMF N.I.C.E., which paid off the school district’s $9,000 lunch debt last year, the group established a fund to help those in need. School board members Kelly Toppin and Dave Licate donated a month of their school board salaries to help establish the fund, said SMF N.I.C.E. member Kari Suhadolnik. Integrity Auto Care in Stow is also donating up to 10 percent of all service appointments made online to SMF CARES.

SMF CARES is also planning a campaign, “Drop Your Drawers,” to collect new, unopened packs of underwear in small youth and teen sizes and disposable feminine hygiene products to stock school clinics and clothing closets.

Items can be dropped off between April 15 and 26 at Stow City Hall, the Stow Safety Building, Munroe Falls City Hall and Stow’s Cleveland Clinic Akron General Health and Wellness Center.

Those experiencing homelessness might be too embarrassed or prideful to ask for help, said Munroe Falls City Council member and Summit County real estate broker Jim Iona.

But he and others encouraged those in need to reach out.

"Kids are so worth it, and no judgment, no shame,” Angely said. “I wish more people would speak up and freely express what they really need, because there are plenty of people in the community willing to help.”

 

Contact reporter Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, emills@thebeaconjournal.com and @EmilyMills818.