Lending a Hand to At-Home Learners

LOCAL SCHOOLS AND NONPROFITS STEP UP TO ASSIST FAMILIES DURING THE PANDEMIC WITH SUPPORT FROM THE COMMUNITY IMPACT FUND

BY MELANIE ANDERSON

The Santa Monica Education Foundation (known locally as the Ed Foundation) provides a lifeline to the city’s public schools. Currently, it has the unique challenge of fundraising for its annual needs as well as meeting more urgent needs, such as tutoring services for students who are homeless or in the foster system. “I spend much of my time talking to parents and other community members,” says Linda Greenberg, executive director of the Ed Foundation. “The pandemic has taken its toll on everybody in so many different ways.” Even so, donors continue supporting the Ed Foundation in large numbers, although total fundraising is below normal. “I was so grateful when I got the invitation to reapply for the CIF grant because Saint John’s is our biggest funder,” says Greenberg. “We are incredibly thankful for their strong support!” The CIF grant supports the Student Wellness Program, which promotes health and safety among 4,534 students in grades K–8. “We have 12 public schools in Santa Monica; we do not have 12 nurses,” says Greenberg. “So we have used part of the CIF funding to provide full-time health office specialists at three of the largest school sites.” Health office specialists are trained in first aid and CPR and assist students with medical conditions. “During distance learning, they’re doing personal outreach to families and making sure students’ immunization records are updated,” says Greenberg. “They’re also part of the team that’s planning for a safe return to our campuses.” Since 2017, the CIF grant has supported mindfulness curriculum at both middle schools. “This is one of our core practices that connects to our core values, which are kindness, connectedness and compassion,” says Steven Richardson, principal of John Adams Middle School. “For some kids it gives focus, for some kids it makes them feel more connected to the group, and for some kids it gets them to a place where they feel safe enough to be in the class.” Students and faculty have embraced breathing and meditation practices, which are formally introduced in PE, to the point that they’re part of morning announcements and many teachers’ classroom routines. During the pandemic, the virtual platform has made it possible for students in a support group known as the restorative justice circle program to meditate in smaller groups. “For some of the kids, the only class they were excited to show up for in the springtime was when they would meditate,” Richardson says. “There’s a heightened need for social-emotional support, wellness and balance. Our groups that need it the most are getting it in a full dose in a regular way and that has been very positive.”

ST. MONICA CATHOLIC SCHOOLS

Since mid-March, the schoolyard at St. Monica Elementary School has been uncharacteristically empty. On a few evenings in the fall, small groups of students and families reunited there for an outdoor socially distanced Mass titled “Mass in the Time of a Pandemic.” “When the transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade kids were here, my description of the event was exuberant,” says Kevin McCardle, PhD, president of St. Monica Catholic Schools. “These children have not seen other children in months, and before Mass began, they were screaming and running. It was wonderful.” In January, those same families had gathered for a very different celebration—the dedication of a new play structure designed for transitional kindergarten to fifth-grade students. “Our yard did not have any structures prior to this that were geared to that level. We have basketball hoops and handball places, but there wasn’t an obvious place for the little kids, so it became quite the popular thing.” Before the pandemic, Saint John’s Health Center Foundation provided a matching CIF grant to help fund the play structure. “When COVID happened, we turned our fundraising efforts to tuition assistance for families that lost jobs. We wanted to get these families through the school year without adding to their stress, and that effort was enormously successful,” says Dr. McCardle. “Then in June the foundation gave us an extension, and we wrapped up the fundraising for the play structure in the middle of September. I want to express our gratitude for this grant and the fact that it was a challenge grant.” While the play structure was constructed, a group of kindergarteners sat on the ground to observe during recess. “They couldn’t wait,” says Dr. McCardle. After a short-lived opportunity to climb and play on the brightly-colored equipment, the children are anticipating the day they can return to the classroom and schoolyard, he says. In the meantime, St. Monica Catholic Schools, which serve 250 elementary students and nearly 400 high school students, have bolstered spirits by hosting drive-through events including carpool lines featuring individually wrapped donuts and a Halloween celebration that involved distributing candy with a 6-foot-long shoot, as well as outdoor Mass. “At the first Mass, the parents got teary-eyed, and Monsignor cried,” says Dr. McCardle. “He hadn’t seen a yard with kids in it in seven months.”

VISION TO LEARN

To increase access to basic vision care, Vision To Learn (VTL) deploys mobile vision clinics to schools and community organizations serving low-income families in 10 states. Each year, the program provides vision screenings for tens of thousands of children. Those who need vision care step aboard VTL’s optometry offices on wheels and receive eye exams and glasses, all free of charge to students and their families. “We want to make sure that all of these children are provided with the glasses they need to succeed in school and in life,” says Joan Chu Reese, executive director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit. To date, VTL has helped over 287,000 students with exams and glasses, with over half of those helped coming from the Los Angeles region. When COVID-19 hit the eye exams stopped, but VTL continued going where help was needed. “Our CIF grant originally was for exams and glasses on the Westside at the Westside Children’s Center, Boys and Girls Club, and at the Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center itself,” says Reese. “When schools closed down due to COVID-19, Saint John’s changed this grant to cover general operating expenses, and we pivoted to support various relief efforts all across the country.” In partnership with other community organizations, VTL used their mobile clinics to help distribute more than 92,000 tote bags of groceries in Los Angeles. “The major area where we provided relief was in food distribution to vulnerable seniors and to families in need,” says Reese. VTL also stepped up to support health care workers. “In L.A., the Dodgers, who are a long-time sports partner of ours, provided Dodgers-themed morale boosters for medical staff, including caps, shirts, towels and even donations for food,” says Reese. Reese says Vision To Learn is grateful for Saint John’s Health Center Foundation’s continued help. “It was incredible how much good this funding was able to support,” she says.

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