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Helping Families Despite Tight Budgets

As Oregon schools head into holiday break this week, many kids are enjoying the extra sleep. But some parents worry at this time about how to make up for the meals their kids get at school.

OPB’s “Learning with Less” series has been following a number of school communities, that are feeling the budget pinch. But as Rob Manning reports, the schools are also trying to help out low-income parents.

Lon Morast teaches P.E. at two middle schools. But when OPB first started following him, he had just lost his job teaching health at David Douglas High.

Rob Manning / OPB
Lon Morast

“Not sure where your future paycheck is coming from – that’s not an easy situation to think about,” he said.

Morast has a family of his own, including a six week-old baby. But he finds time to serve breakfast at Ron Russell Middle School.

“A lot of these kids, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” he said.

As students boarded buses to head home last week, volunteers carried food donations in. Crates of apples and loaves of bread filled the school office, for food boxes to give families.

“I know for a fact, a lot of these kids only eat at school. They don’t go home to a hot meal,” he said.

Caris Rodriguez coordinates the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods – or SUN program, at Ron Russell. It’s an after-school enrichment program. But dinner is a big attraction.

“I can tell because - the way they eat, and they’re just asking ‘What are we eating today?’ or ‘Do we have SUN next week?’ They’re more excited about the food than the classes, sometimes,” Rodriguez said.

Rob Manning / OPB
Caris Rodriguez

SUN went dark at Ron Russell on December 8. But Rodriguez hopes the food boxes will help the neediest families while school is closed.

A few miles south of Ron Russell, in the North Clackamas School District, another school sponsors an enormous event to help out at this time of year. “Winter Rage” offers food, gifts, and clothes to about 150 needy families.

“We have more students in need than we’ve ever had before. More families in need,” Matt Utterback said.

Utterback is the Clackamas High principal. He’s another educator OPB is following this school year.

“Putting food on the table, providing some gifts at the holiday season, so, I think definitely, I think it has more significance, given the state of the economy,” Utterback said.

School counselors from around the district refer the neediest families to the Clackamas High event. Those families receive invitations to attend. Student volunteers round up donations and greet families at the door. Emilee Huey is a sophomore and one of the event’s organizers. She says families line up early to get in.

“If you came before 1:00 – you would wait here until we open, until 1:00, which the families were doing. Then you’d walk around. You can take as much as you want. You can leave with one bag, you can leave with ten bags,” Huey said.

Rob Manning / OPB

Casey Steed is looking through a pile of infant clothes. Steed has three kids and another on the way. Her job pays her less than $10 an hour.

“This makes our year. This is when my kids get new clothes. This is when we get everything they need. I honestly don’t know what I would do without this program. This is our Christmas,” Steed said.

Clackamas High officials say Winter Rage might cost as much as $15,000 – but it depends entirely on donations.

While schools are helping families weather the tough economy, teachers are concerned about how tight school budgets are affecting poorer students in school, as well.

Back in the physical education office at Ron Russell Middle School, Lon Morast says some kids aren’t getting a chance to play on a sports team. Morast notes that while some parents are scraping by, the school district has jacked up participation fees.

“I’ve noticed there’s less turnout for sports and extra-curricular activities than in the past. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I’ve noticed a difference, for sure. Talking to my middle school kids, that was a primary reason they gave,” Morast explained.

Higher fees are a fact of life at Clackamas High School, too.

But there’s no fee to volunteer at Winter Rage. Student organizers like sophomore Amanda Duong invested months of time, planning the event. She says it’s worth it.

“The feeling you get to help as many families as you can for Christmas, and then you see the children’s faces, it’s just so amazing, because all of your hard work has gone to help others. It’s just – I don’t know how to explain it,” Amanda Duong said.

In addition to the many kids and teachers who volunteer at “Winter Rage,” Principal Matt Utterback estimates close to 80% of students donated clothes or spare change to help the families who come.

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