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Support from One Family to Another

"The stories of families in our community with need for basics such as food and clothes have surprised me," says Lyndsey Kokoris, chairperson of Family Connection. "We have students wearing the only clothes and shoes they own and so many families with food issues -- basic critical needs. At the same time, sitting next to those students in their classrooms are kids with the most expensive phones and iPods, vacation homes, and designer clothes.

That's where the Family Connection comes in. Initiated through one parent's desire to support struggling families, the group comprises members of the school community -- primarily students and their parents, but also members of the school community and other concerned community members -- who see the needs and want to make a difference.

"The generosity of our Family Connection volunteers is heartwarming," said Kokoris. "Sometimes our volunteers are equally surprised by these needs, but they are always there to help answer the requests with whatever amount they can give. A sense of giving and receiving is at the heart of Family Connection."

The program is a collaborative effort on the part of families of students at Naperville North High School (NNHS) in Naperville, Illinois. Whenever a critical need is identified by school staff members, Kokoris communicates that need via email to the Family Connection volunteer database. The team then responds by providing support in the form of food, fuel, and clothing.

In addition to assisting with needs as they arise, Kokoris oversees Thanksgiving and holiday "adopt a family" programs through Family Connection. Being at the helm allows her to see more of the raw "real need" that is present in the school, and it gives her the desire to work harder to spread the word about the program. She knows just how badly the families need this service.

"When client students' critical basic needs are met the result is improved emotional state of mind and increased success in the classroom," reports Robyn O'Halloran, who chairs the School, Family, Community Partnerships team at Naperville North. "Client students also benefit from experiencing kindness and genuine respect for privacy and dignity."

One case shared by the school nurse was that of a student who lived with a single parent and an ill sibling. When the night nurse periodically neglected to show up for duty, the student had to stay up all night to monitor the ventilator. When offered assistance from Family Connection, the student broke down in tears and questioned why someone would want to help his family. He believed that this situation was the family's problem and the "hand they were dealt." When the nurse explained that someday he might be in a position to help someone else, the student immediately made the connection and became confident that that was a real possibility.

Because the recipients of assistance remain anonymous, parent volunteers do not directly interact with those they help. However, staff members pass along the thanks of these families, and quotes from their touching notes are often shared with the volunteers. The Family Connection team members strive to set an example of service and selfless giving for their own children.

"Donor students validate giving from the heart and develop and nurture a passion for service to others," observed O'Halloran. "One NNHS student, upon learning of needs through Family Connection, roamed the cafeteria with a milk jug, and collected coins to help families in crisis. Another student graduated from NNHS and immediately donated all of his graduation gift money to Family Connection."

Over its more than five years in existence, the program has grown and evolved. Kokoris has learned that the situations of families in need are often complicated by transportation issues. Even picking up aid can be a challenge, so it is sometimes sent home with the students. In lieu of holiday baskets that were cumbersome and identified students as recipients of assistance, today they are given gift cards that fit discreetly in their backpacks.

Ross Truemper, principal of Naperville North High School, told Education World that the need within his building is on the rise. "We are seeing a larger need with the increase in families who come to Naperville and meet free and reduced lunch guidelines. We have also seen very significant cutbacks in personnel in local high tech companies. Finally, the economy has hit a lot of jobs in general."

According to Kokoris, as more people come to rely on Family Connection during the harsh economic times, the team is working to expand its volunteer database by reaching out to the community. She and her peers are currently applying for a grant to help cover the cost of the escalating needs that cannot be addressed by the volunteers.

Family Connection not only helps the needs of its recipients, but it provides tremendous solace to all the passionate volunteers and staff who work on their behalf," Kokoris added. "Times are tough now, and stories about families not having food are agonizing. Knowing that Family Connection is there to turn to provides comfort to all of us. That is the real wealth of any community."

Stories in the Partners for Student Success series come from annual collections of Promising Partnership Practices by the National Network of Partnership Schools. Established by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, NNPS is dedicated to bringing together schools, districts, and states that are committed to developing and maintaining comprehensive programs of school-family-community partnerships.

"Based on more than a decade of research and the work of many educators, parents, students, and others, we know that it is possible for all elementary, middle, and high schools to develop and maintain strong programs of partnership," NNPS director Joyce L. Epstein told Education World. NNPS provides a wide range of resources to help schools and school districts build strong partnerships.

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