For many of Oklahoma’s children, the end of summer signifies the beginning of a new school year. Yet, for as many as 6,000 children in Oklahoma, getting an education often takes a backseat to basic needs like food and shelter. According to the 2011 OKC Point-In-Time homelessness count, homeless families with children have become the fastest growing subpopulation in the past five years.
While the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act ensures educational rights and protection for homeless children, the stresses these children endure often hinder their ability to learn. Positive Tomorrows began in 1989 as a publicly funded transitional school for homeless children in OKC. Josh Beasley, director of development, shared the school’s vision. “Homeless children experience things not typical for most children. This causes academic and social developmental delays because of their unstable environment. Positive Tomorrows is a resource for homeless families to help students reach the right academic level. Our goal isn’t to replace the public school system but to prepare students to be successful in that environment.”
Unfortunately, most children of homeless families don’t know where they’ll spend the night or when they’ll get their next meal. Positive Tomorrows offers family support programs to help parents obtain shelter, receive job training or find job placement. “Homelessness, in general, is misunderstood in the community. We see a lot of families on the other side of bad luck or a couple of bad decisions. Once a family falls into that scenario, it’s so hard to get out. Those families just want a hand up, not a hand out. Children should be able to focus on learning and when their family is stable, they can.” Even though every student qualifies for the federal free lunch program, the school provides beyond those requirements because they may be providing the child’s only meals.
“When I first came on staff, a teacher told me about a little boy who kept coming back for more food at breakfast. When he asked for thirds, she commented on how hungry he was. The boy simply said, ‘Yeah, we didn’t eat this weekend.’ That’s a sad reality for many of our students. We provide them with three meals a day because we know that no one can learn on an empty stomach,” said Beasley.
In the past five years, students aren’t the only ones who’ve experienced transition at Positive Tomorrows. When No Child Left Behind passed, the school lost more than half of its funding and closed the doors to everything except an after-school program. “Our board looked into the community and found there was still a need for homeless children to have a safe and stable learning environment. In 2007, we reopened as an elementary school because the earlier we can put a child on the right path, the better. Of the reported 1700 homeless children in the Oklahoma City School District, just over 100 will go through our school within a year,” said Beasley.
Positive Tomorrows is a partner agency of United Way but receives most of its funding from private corporations, foundations and individuals. This year, the University of Central Oklahoma’s homecoming celebration bonfire will incorporate their Rock the Block fundraiser to benefit Positive Tomorrows. According to Courtney James, assistant director for campus activities, this will be a rarity in UCO history. “The bonfire has never been about fundraising, it’s all about homecoming. But this year when the students on our homecoming activities board investigated the philanthropy opportunities in OKC and Edmond, they visited Positive Tomorrows and were overwhelmed by what they saw. There was an emotional connection and they believe they need UCO’s help as well as the entire communities.”
Rock the Block will be held on Monday, September 26 from 5 to 8 p.m. and will host a variety of activities including inflatables, live music and food. Playing on inflatables is free, courtesy of the Oklahoma National Guard. A band from the UCO Academy of Contemporary Music will open for the high energy, headlining Arkansas band Boom Kinetic. The bonfire will begin at 8 p.m. All-you-can-eat food, donated by local vendors, is available with the purchase of a wristband for three dollars. For seven dollars, a T-shirt is also included. However, attending the event isn’t the only way the community can get involved with supporting Positive Tomorrows. James explained, “We need donation items that will benefit the school. Our students always bring so much stuff that it fills two (moving trucks). This year we are collecting hand sanitizer, toilet paper, Clorox wipes, paper towels and 1 gallon Ziploc bags. But Positive Tomorrows also needs items such as: full size bottles of shampoo and conditioner, deodorant, alarm clocks, pots and pans, sheet sets, pillows, bedspreads and gas cards. Individuals can bring all donated items to the Positive Tomorrows table at the Rock the Block event and bonfire.”
Rarely does the staff at Positive Tomorrows witness firsthand the long-term effect the school has on a child’s life. But, just one glimpse can make a difference. “We had a couple of students from UCO and OU volunteer at the school. They told us they came to give back because they’d been here when they were 10 years old,” said Beasley. “Through the power of education, we can end the cycle of homelessness. Positive Tomorrows isn’t just a name, it’s our mission. We want to give a positive tomorrow to all homeless children.”
To get involved with Positive Tomorrows through donating time, supplies or money, go to www.positivetomorrows.org or call 556-5082.