Sunday, May 31, 2009

Homeless not hopeless: Program supports kids who've hit hard times

By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer

Anna thought she'd never see a cap and gown.
She was 15, pregnant and alone after the death of her mother. And she was homeless.
So graduation didn't seem possible. It wasn't even a priority.
'I was just trying to get by,' said Anna, a Belton High School senior whose real name is being withheld. 'There was too much of everything else to worry about.'
Life was hard. Everyday brought the challenge of finding food, shelter and safety.
'That's how it was, and that's how I thought it would keep going,' Anna said.
But it didn't.
Thanks to Project Heartbeat, Anna will receive her high school diploma on Thursday at the Bell County Expo Center. And she'll be wearing a red cap and gown. 'It feels amazing to know I'm going to graduate,' Anna said. 'Being able to graduate, despite everything else, means that I can achieve all that I want, even though I know there will be challenges.'
Anna plans to enroll at Abilene Christian University in the fall. She's earned scholarships to pave her way.
'I want to be a nurse,' Anna said. 'The lady I live with now, she's a nurse. And my mom was a nurse. I want to be a nurse too and help people.'

What is Project Heartbeat?
Simply put, Project Heartbeat ensures that homeless students in the Belton school district have the opportunity to attend school and graduate.
'We do whatever it takes,' said Jill Ross, director of federal programs and homeless liaison for BISD. 'From transportation and food, to clothing and encouragement, we make sure that they have everything they need.'
Funding comes from a grant from the Texas Support for the Homeless Education Program (TEXSHEP).
'It's a competitive grant,' explained Neomi Berumen, Project Heartbeat case manager. 'You apply, and it's awarded according to need.'
The Belton school district received word earlier this month that it will continue to receive the TEXSHEP grant for another three years.
Right now, it's at the end of its fifth.
'In that time, close to 1,000 homeless students have gone through the program,' Ms. Berumen said.
To be classified as homeless, students must meet the qualifications defined in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1986.
'They've got to be living in a shelter, hotel, or under a bridge on the streets,' Ms. Berumen said. 'Students in temporary foster care and those doubled-up with friend or family also qualify.'
Of this year's batch of 280 Heartbeat kids, 78 percent are doubled-up with friends and family.
'That situation is considered homeless because it's considered temporary,' Ms. Berumen said. 'We have to see how stable the environment is and how long the student can stay there.'
Project Heartbeat students are identified at the beginning of every school year in the registrar's office.
'Every student must submit a residency questionnaire at the time of enrollment,' Ms. Berumen said. 'And if there are any red flags of homelessness that go up, then they refer the student's name to Project Heartbeat.'
And as the case manager, Ms. Berumen conducts an investigation on the student's homelife to determine if there is any need.
Referrals for Project Heartbeat can also come from teachers.
'If a student wears the same outfit for three or four days in a row, that's a red flag,' Ms. Berumen said. 'So is falling asleep in class.'
Once admitted into the program, Heartbeat students receive school supplies, free lunch, clothes and personal care items.
'And we provide transportation,' Ms. Ross said. 'Through the bus system.'
That's a nice perk, Ms. Berumen said, because it let's the student stay in the school they're accustomed to.
'So if a single mom from Belton loses her house and decides to get a job in Killeen where her brother lives, then she and her son can live an Killeen but the son can still come to school in Belton,' Ms. Berumen said. 'Project Heartbeat has it coordinated to where the school bus in Killeen will pick him up and put him on a Belton bus at a place where the routes overlap.'
A similar agreement is in place with Temple schools.

Stay in school

Encouraging Project Heartbeat students not to drop out is a big part of Ms. Ross's job.
'It gets tough, especially for the seniors,' Ms. Ross said. 'The temptation to give up is there, and we work really hard to make sure that doesn't happen.'
Sometimes that means giving the senior a morning wake-up call.
'Some of them need that nudge,' Ms. Ross said. 'That reminder that their diploma is just days away and that they've got people cheering them on.'
But Project Heartbeat doesn't stop at graduation.
'We get them as prepared as we can for college,' Ms. Berumen said. 'We help them with scholarship application and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. We want them to be able to succeed.'
This portion of Project Heartbeat, Anna found especially helpful.
'They helped me with the paper work,' Anna said. 'And they helped me get Medicaid and find a daycare, so that my son would be taken care of. I was able to focus on school with all the help they gave me.'

Kindness from volunteers
Even though it receives federal funding, Project Heartbeat still relies on the help of area volunteers.
'It's the collaborative efforts from community service organizations that are vital to our success,' Ms. Ross said. 'We couldn't make all of this possible without volunteers.'
Groups like Altrusa International Inc. of Temple, the Belton Kiwanis and the Helping Hands Ministry of Belton are a few of the organizations that frequently contribute.
Each fall, Belton Kiwanis joins forces with volunteer Jeannette Kelley to provide Heartbeat students with new school supplies.
'That's a part of Project Appletree,' Ms. Kelley said. 'Every student gets a new backpack, a set of school supplies, new shoes and an outfit. And Heartbeat kids qualify for a free haircut on distribution day.'
And that's not all. In her role as volunteer for Helping Hands, Ms. Kelley links food pantry services to Heartbeat students who need it.
Altrusa members are just as passionate about Project Heartbeat. They collect hygiene kits and laundry supplies for its students. And Altrusa provides Project Heartbeat with money for caps and gowns.
'That is a huge thing, getting the caps and gowns,' Ms. Ross said. 'A lot of times our kids won't participate in senior activities because they don't have the money.'
Altrusa volunteer Jacque Ramba nodded her head.
'They're having to chose between their cap and gown and food or a bill to pay,' Ms. Ramba said. 'We don't want them to make that choice.'
Anna is well aware of all of these volunteer contributions.
'I'm so grateful to everyone,' Anna said with tears in her eyes. 'They thought of everything, which let me think of a future.'
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Need help?
If you’re homeless and in school, there are several ways you can get help. Students in the Belton schools can call Project Heartbeat at 215-2095. Students in the Temple schools can call 215-6782.

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How to get involved?
Last year, Altrusa International Inc. of Temple provided Project Heartbeat students with gas cards when gas prices were high, and this year the club purchased eight scientific calculators for Heartbeat students to use when preparing for the SAT, ACT and TAKS tests. The club routinely provides students with hygiene kits and laundry supplies.
'Next year, we'd like to be able to provide the students with graduation gifts and encouragement cards as well,' said Altrusa volunteer Jacque Ramba.
To assist in this goal, write to P.O. Box 1251, Temple, TX 76503 or go online to www.altrusatemple.com

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