The backpacks are filled, lunches made and new shoes have been tied – it’s time for kids to head back to school. Ten kids left Rotholme Family Shelter this morning, ranging in ages from Junior Kindergarten to grade 10.
“There was a lot of running around and a lot of feelings,” says Rebecca Fisher, a case worker at Rotholme. Children and parents alike were both excited and nervous about the changes that come with school starting again. Whether it was concerns about bus schedules or class assignments, Rotholme workers have lots of experience soothing those nerves.
“Because of Covid, they haven’t gotten a tour of the school ahead of time,” she says. “They’re dropped off blind at the bus stop and then what? Some of them may have never been on a bus before or are going to a new school with new kids. We just have to try keep everyone calm and give them the information they need.”
Shelley Stewart was the program supervisor at Rotholme for over 30 years until her retirement in 2018. She says back to school time presented unique challenges for families receiving support from Rotholme.
“The affordability of clothes, school supplies… it’s a lot for families,” she remembers. She helped initiate the back to school fundraising campaign ten years ago to help families prepare for the school year. “It was a huge success.”
Thanks to this year’s Fill Up the Bus campaign, children are able to select from a wide range of backpacks and workers create a shopping experience at the shelter. While parents wait outside, the kids fill up their backpacks and then proudly show their parents what they choose.
“It’s so fun to see their little faces because we had such a wide arrangement of backpacks. So if they want a superhero or a plain one, we can let them choose,” says Rebecca. “Parents love it because they get to see their kids get excited about their back to school items. It’s just one of those really fun days here.”
Each child also receives a gift card so they can select a new pair of shoes. “Shoes are so personal,” notes Rebecca. “Kids have such a wide range of shoe sizes, colour preferences, different characters.”
Providing children with essential supplies and clothing is not the only benefit of the Fill Up the Bus campaign. Community support and awareness helps families feel more comfortable and confident about their housing situation – whether they are staying at the shelter or receiving support in a new home.
“Our local school was great at reducing the stigma for children entering a new school,” Shelley says. “It can be hard on kids and parents to tell their friends they’re living in a shelter. Or sometimes we would place families mid-school year and kids started a new school halfway through the year. It can be tough to explain.”
Once September comes and children are back to school, the work is only beginning. Rotholme workers try create an environment conducive to school work but it can be hard. Families with multiple children staying in a single room often struggle to find quiet spaces for their children to finish homework assignments or study. This was exacerbated during the Covid pandemic when classes went virtual.
“Distance learning was really challenging,” says Rebecca. “The school boards provided technology but the kids had to stay in their rooms. Because of social distancing, we couldn’t use our common spaces so it was very limiting in terms of providing spaces to learn.”
Back to school doesn’t only present challenges for Rotholme but also opportunities. Once children are in school during the day, it frees up time for parents to look for housing or employment. It also introduces structure to families’ days.
“Often times, families would come to the shelter without a schedule, without bedtimes or structure to their day,” Shelley says. “Back to school means back to a routine. Families need to quickly develop life skills like waking up on time and making a bus. We have a curfew for kids.”
“Children need those structures and schedules to thrive. We see families continuing those skills after they leave us because they really make a difference.”
To help a child and family be prepared for school, please visit sharetheblessings.ca. Your generous donation can help fund clothing, shoes, school supplies and more for children of all ages.