St. Tammany moms open ‘closet’ to students in need
SLIDELL, La. (AP) — At first, Wendy Keller didn’t believe what she was hearing. Her 14-year-old was asking for hygiene products she could bring to school for friends who were homeless.
She recalled thinking: Are there really students in my child’s school who don’t have homes?
No way, Keller said she thought at first. But a call to the office at St. Tammany Junior High in Slidell confirmed what she was hearing.
Each day, hundreds of students classified as homeless head to classrooms in St. Tammany Parish public schools.
“They might be kids in shelters, or kids sleeping in motels, or kids staying a someone else’s house,” said David Horchar, executive director of Family Promise, a Slidell help organization.
So far this academic year, there are 316 students in the St. Tammany Parish public school district classified as homeless, a district spokeswoman said. The homeless designation can include a range of living conditions, including families living with grandparents or students who move in with friends’ families, district spokeswoman Meredith Mendez said.
Horchar said he expects that number to climb to 1,000 or more by the end of the school year.
Many more aren’t necessarily homeless but cannot afford the things other students might take for granted. The thought stuck with Keller.
“It ate at me,” she said.” Then, in church one Saturday the homily was ‘If not me, then who? And if not now, then when?’”
Keller called a long-time friend, Tina Billiot of Mandeville, and together they began gathering basic hygiene supplies for students. They were able to deliver the supplies to two schools, St. Tammany Junior High and Salmen High School, in January.
That was just the beginning. Spreading the word through Facebook and social media, they started a group, “Our Friends Closet,” which has continued to gather supplies for students in need.
Within a few months, supplies had been delivered to 20 junior high schools and high schools across the parish. Deliveries included everything from socks and toothbrushes to shampoo and deodorant -- even quarters to help cover the costs of laundromats.
The group has since registered as a nonprofit, which the pair said has helped lend credibility. It has expanded to include deliveries for schools in St. Bernard, Tangipahoa and Washington parishes and Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
“Wendy hits up the businesses and I hit up the people,” Billiot said. “It works for us.”
The supplies fill a room at Billiot’s house, where crews load them into bags for deliveries, which are coordinated with the schools.
Keller said there is no direct contact with any students. The group works with the counselors at the schools.
“Right now we’re working on Christmas, so the kids can have something. Stocking stuffer things like socks or T-shirts or gift cards,” Keller said. “After that we’ll start on graduation.”
“These kids, despite so many things, they get up every day and go to school and do all the work -- we want to do something to recognize that,” she added.
Horchar said Family Promise, a nonprofit funded with government grants, church donations and corporate support, works to connect people in need with services to help them. The organization has a day center with a full-time crisis manager on staff, he said.
While St. Tammany is often thought of as one of the state’s most affluent parishes -- it had a median household income of $63,686 in 2017 and its 9.8 percent poverty rate is nearly 10 points lower than the Louisiana average -- Horchar said numerous residents find themselves a “hiccup” away from financial crisis.
“All it takes is one thing, a broken-down car or sickness, for them to lose a job and maybe a home,” he said.
Our Friends Closet can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/OurFriendsCloset01/.
Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com