More than 1,000 kids across Central Oregon are, by federal standards at least, homeless this holiday season. A relative few are unsheltered, with no roof over their heads. Others are doubling up with other families, living in motels or in some other situation that can change despite their families’ best efforts to the contrary. That makes them eligible for services under the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education of Homeless Children and Youth Program.

The act guarantees that kids who meet the definition of homeless get the free and appropriate public education they’re entitled to in the school they were attending when they became homeless. That includes transportation to and from school and free meals, among other things.

It’s a very big deal, says Dana Pedersen, principal at Bend’s Ensworth Elementary School and supervisor of the Family Access Network for Bend-La Pine Schools. FAN, a private organization that partners with the High Desert Education Service District to assure that children’s educational rights are protected, has more than two dozen advocates at 52 schools throughout Deschutes and Crook counties.

FAN advocates do all sorts of things for kids, whether they’re homeless or simply disadvantaged. And it’s a program that is unique to Central Oregon.

Mara Stephens, Bend-La Pine’s homeless liaison, is the front line for homeless children, the first person they’re likely to meet when their condition becomes known, says Pedersen. It’s Stephens who, if a child has been attending school here, takes the first steps to see that that kid and that school will stay connected all year. It’s she who gets them signed up for free meals at school immediately. It’s she who, if a child is new to the district, gets him or her enrolled, also immediately, no matter what the status of paperwork from elsewhere.

Then the individual advocates take over. They make sure children have transportation, sometimes across three districts, with hand-offs from one to the next at the point where districts meet. Bend-La Pine’s transportation department, Pedersen says, is outstanding at making sure complex arrangements are carried out.

The FAN advocates go beyond scheduling buses. They work with parents on the verge of eviction, doing what they can, including, occasionally, finding money to keep families in whatever housing they might have.

Advocates can help arrange for medical care, find clothing … just about anything to help a child and his family to meet their basic needs. Most importantly, Pedersen says, they work, hard, to assure that the children they help with can stay in the school with which they’re familiar. Doing so can mean the difference between future graduation and failure to complete an education.

That’s critical, Pedersen says. Kids living on the edge too often lack the stability in their lives that all of us need. Frequent moves, other sorts of unpredictability and even too much time alone are tough on kids, so much so that Pedersen says there’s a noticeable uptick in disruptive behaviors before vacations or summer.

FAN advocates are not alone in working to try to level the playing field for disadvantaged kids, of course. Pedersen’s Ensworth Elementary offers free meals to all its students because so many would qualify anyway. That means breakfast, lunch and snack for every one of the 210 children enrolled there, plus supper for those who take part in after-school activities. It’s able to do so because the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which pays for most of schools’ food programs, says that when enough kids qualify for free or reduced meals, all kids should get them. It’s a system that helps ease the stigma of being poor.

I asked Pedersen this week what her holiday wish for the kids at Ensworth would be this year. Her answer wasn’t immediate, but when it came, it made perfect sense.

“Stability,” she said. She knows, as perhaps not everyone in the district does, just how critical stability — seeing the same teachers, the same students, even the same bus drivers — can be to children who are homeless or in danger of becoming so.

— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, jstevens@bendbulletin.com

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