by Ben Adlin
With the pandemic’s economic impact hitting vulnerable households hardest, Seward Park’s Graham Hill Elementary is turning to the surrounding community for relief, asking for donations to provide direct cash payments to students’ families.
The online fundraiser launched last month is the latest effort by parents and staff at South End public schools to provide flexible financial relief to families unable to afford everyday expenses, often because of COVID-19-related job losses or reduced work. Similar efforts at Rainier View and Concord International elementary schools have each raised tens of thousands of dollars in community aid since organizers began them this spring.
Graham Hill’s current goal is to raise $20,000 in donations by the end of 2020. The money will be available to families in increments of $250 to $1,000, which can be used for whatever expenses the families deem necessary.
“This is that additional boost to give families a little bit of breathing space,” the school’s social worker, Daniel Gagnon, told the Emerald. “These families are just going through it right now. COVID has not hit us equally by any means, and some families are just in a horrible position.”
Gagnon teamed up with the Graham Hill PTA to launch the GoFundMe campaign and spread word of it to friends and neighbors. While some school partnerships already provide certain types of aid to families — often in the form of gift cards or fresh produce — the new program is aimed to allow more flexibility. Families can use the money for food, rent or utility bills, setting up a home study space, transportation, paying off debt, or any other expense they choose.
“That’s what’s beautiful about the program,” Gagnon said. “We have amazing community partners who are generous and they help out, but with COVID, the demand is so much more.”
Often the needs are modest, such as buying a desk to do work at home or headphones so students can hear online classes in a noisy environment. “Headphones have been huge,” Gagnon explained, “getting those $20 over-the-ear headphones so kids can plug in and hear their teacher.”
Unlike in past years, when Gagnon estimates he’d usually spend about 80 percent of his time with students, the school social worker said that because of COVID-19, at least half his workday is now dedicated to helping connect students’ parents and guardians with whatever resources he can find.
Gagnon said his office is “filled with a lot of tears” these days as families face overdue utility bills, food insecurity, and the fear of looming evictions. “People don’t like asking for handouts,” he said, “and this pandemic has kind of forced it.”
At the same time, he acknowledges there have been silver linings to working more closely with families. “That’s the blessing of my job. I get to connect with families, and I get to provide some relief, and we get to support and help connect them to the school.”
Giving out no-strings-attached cash payments is a way of building trust with families, he added: “We trust that you’re going to spend this money however you see fit as a family.”
None of the work would be possible, Gagnon said, without the support of parent–teacher associations, who have been instrumental in organizing drives to get direct relief to families. PTA and PTSA groups at Graham Hill, Rainier View, and Concord International all provided key administrative backing for the GoFundMe campaigns as well as for other programs, such as a partnership with the Rainier Valley Food Bank that provides bags of fresh produce to families.
“The PTA cares about the families of this school,” said Arlene Williams, co-president of Graham Hill’s parent–teacher association. “Nine months into this pandemic, it’s a struggle for all of us.”
The PTA organized a separate fundraiser this past spring, Williams said, when the pandemic’s first major impacts were felt. But the group was inspired by the GoFundMe set up by Rainier View, which went live in April and has since raised more than $60,000. Concord International’s fundraiser, launched in March, has collected more than $77,000.
“Basically when COVID hit, we as a PTSA just completely pivoted from normal PTSA stuff, like event planning and fundraising for your school, to completely advocating and fundraising for our families,” said Sarena Li, PTSA president at Rainier View Elementary.
When Li saw that Concord International had started a fund to help families cover rent, the Rainier View PTA launched a GoFundMe of their own. Gagnon, who at the time worked at that school, reached out to virtually every family in the school to gauge their need for financial support, then worked to divide the raised funds as equitably as possible, she said.
“We sent out Google forms to the entire school asking, ‘Do you need financial help, and how much do you need?’” Li recalled. Fifty families responded saying they needed help, she said, “and we’re a small school. We only have 250 students, so that’s a big percentage of our families.”
For some, asking the community for tens of thousands of dollars feels like a big ask. At Graham Hill, the PTA’s annual auction, the group’s chief fundraiser during a typical year, usually brings in about $40,000, said Jean Sauvion, who spearheads much of the group’s fundraising work. “Even asking for $20,000 off the bat like that — no auction, just an ask — it’s pretty big,” she said of the new campaign.
But students and their families are desperate for help. “Nobody really knows the extent to which families are suffering,” Sauvion said. “There’s something new all the time.”
Many of the project’s organizers credited GoFundMe for allowing them to easily raise funds during a time of social distancing. But Gagnon, Graham Hill’s social worker, said it’s institutions like the school’s PTA that are responsible for putting fundraising plans into action.
“Not every school has a PTA or PTSA,” he said, noting that Rainier View didn’t have one until last year. “Those hundreds of bags of groceries they’re giving out to families to this day would not happen without them.”
Nor do all schools employ social workers, school counselors, or family support workers. “If you do have one of those,” Gagnon noted, “your kids are going to have access to more resources, because someone’s job is to bridge that gap.”
Overwhelming demand for aid across Puget Sound has also encouraged school groups to team up, sharing best practices and fundraising strategies. Fundraising within Seattle Public Schools is often “siloed within each PTA,” Williams said. “That’s been an outgrowth of the pandemic, working on equity between the South Seattle schools.”
While the past several months have been demanding, Williams added, the mission has also helped remind her of the fundamental role schools play in society.
“I’ve realized how central the school is to disseminating services to families,” she said. “Not everybody’s connected to a church, not everybody has a bigger group. But every kid is connected to a school.”
Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based journalist.
Featured image by Alex Garland.
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