BEST OF: The Hand that Helps

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The Hand that Helps

Editor’s note: During the Thanksgiving holiday, The Hub will take a look back at some of the best and most popular stories from our first semester. This story was originally published on Sept. 11, 2014.

The opening day at the John Leslie Patton Jr. Academic Center’s Drop-In Center started early. A resource for homeless students to pick up food, hygiene items, diapers and milk, the drop-in center also offers a bit of encouragement to help the students push through another day. Patton Community Liaison Saundra Staton-Dillon and several of her colleagues are busy moving about the room, focused on counting inventory, organizing stock and filling bags with toothpaste, deodorant and other personal care items that will go to students designated as homeless.

Room 212 houses Patton’s drop-in center and doubles as Staton-Dillon’s office, decorated in purple mementos and family photos. As cars and city buses speed by the aged mid-century homes across Beckley Avenue, students with sleepy, tired eyes begin to make their way into the building. A few peek in and walk by the open door, others actually come in.

A tall, slender teenage girl with golden ombre side-swept bangs comes in quietly, timid. Staton-Dillon welcomes her, guides her to a table with breakfast tacos and juice, and reminds her to fill out paperwork. She joins a table of her peers. Among them is De’Vonte Fields.

Fields graduated from Patton this summer and is now a student at El Centro College embarking on a career in the Army. Confident and energetic, Fields is preparing for his first deployment to South Africa. He is proud to follow in the footsteps of his grandfathers, who both had 30-plus-year careers in the military. Fields admits his life was not always something he could brag about.

“My experience here, in the drop-in center, was promising,” said Fields. “When I was here, I was going through a lot of things—I was homeless, my family wasn’t encouraging me. I probably would’ve given up and dropped out had I not found this place.”

Despite being one credit shy of graduation, Fields described a feeling of hopelessness.

“If it were not for this program, these people encouraging me, giving me advice – they helped me through it,” Fields said. “Those were some hard times.”

Fields said Staton-Dillon and others at the center helped him meet his needs for housing, academic progress and guidance and that he returned to the center for its opening to return the support he received to encourage other students.

The concept of the drop-in center began two years ago at North Dallas High School under the direction of Mark Pierce, manager of Dallas ISD’s Homeless Education Program.

Pierce launched the effort with the help of the Church of the Incarnation, starting out with coffee and donuts. Then Pierce brought over things that came in through the Homeless Education Program —backpacks, school uniforms and sleeping bags.

“The following year, I really wanted to get into Patton because it was clear we had a fairly high population of students—about 40 percent—who identified as homeless,” Pierce said. “Which can mean that they live with another family, are couch-surfing or that they live with their mom who lives with their grandma.”

Pierce said the Dallas ISD homeless student population is about 3,500. Many students don’t want people to know they are homeless because they don’t want to go into foster care. Sometimes, students don’t realize they are homeless.

“My primary goal is to keep them in school, to motivate them to continue and graduate,” said Pierce. “The best place for them to be is in school and not to give up on school, drop out and hang out in the street. The primary objective of the center is to improve attendance. We track that every year and have documented that it is actually working—that the kids that are connected with the drop-in center tend to attend school better than those that don’t.” Patton Principal Leslie Swann agreed.

“This is one less thing students have to worry about,” said Swann. “Through the drop-in center, students can get breakfast, personal care items, milk and nutritional items for themselves, younger siblings they care for, or children of their own.”

The Patton drop-in center, much like the one at North Dallas High School, partners with nearby agencies to provide goods and services to their students.

The North Texas Food Bank has been key in helping meet student needs, along with other organizations such as Promise House, which provides shelter for students, and local churches that may donate meals or provide mentors. Swann said Dillon and counselors at the school have cultivated relationships with other agencies that provide social services and counseling and can provide referrals for additional support or wraparound services.

“It is not important how our students got here; their past is irrelevant,” said Swann. “The focus is providing resources to help kids be successful and help them handle the real life issues that are affecting them, issues that may be the cause of why they are here in the first place.”

Though Swann has only been Patton’s lead administrator for a year, she praised the work of campus employees who contribute to the countless success stories of students given another chance to graduate.

“What they do here, what they show you is a blessing. Whenever I’m here, I always want to come back and support this program, this is an awesome thing,” said Fields. “This is where I began to feel good about myself.”

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