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In lieu of gifts, send coats

Many students need basics, like coats, to show up ready to learn

Tucked inside the invitation to her September wedding, Rickee Stewart’s friends and family found a twist on the traditional registry card. Instead of plates and cutlery, Rickee registered for “tennis shoes and Converse and backpacks and winter coats” to help support homeless students at her Utah school.When Rickee started teaching two years ago after a long career as an attorney, she realized what teachers across the country have come to understand all too well: Students can’t learn when they come to school hungry, tired, or self-conscious about their personal care.

“A student cannot focus on my accounting lesson if they are worried about feeding their little sister or staying warm in the middle of a cold Utah winter.”

The Faces of Homelessness

Every year, Rickee’s class runs a food drive to contribute to the school’s food pantry, which serves students without a stable source of food on the weekends. Through that project, she learned that over 100 students at her school were homeless. This year, she decided to go one step further to help meet their basic needs. In July, she started a DonorsChoose.org project for a few shoes. When that was fully-funded, she started another for backpacks, and then another for tents and sleeping bags.

"I am beyond touched at the generosity and humanity demonstrated by this project and your donation."

Her most recent project launched on August 3rd for 600 coats, enough to support students from surrounding schools. In under three weeks it was fully funded, thanks to 62 generous donors from across the country, and all matched by our Student Life Essentials supporters. Now, she has her sights set on the rest of the district: she wants to make sure every one of the 2,100 homeless students will stay warm through the cold Utah winter. As she put it, “Homelessness is an epidemic and, in our schools, it has a real face, the face of my students.”

A National Concern

Rickee isn’t alone. Last February, we surveyed teachers at high-poverty schools and found that 84% of teachers had purchased at least one item to help meet students’ most basic needs.

Chart: Percentage of teachers who have purchased essential items for students

And all of those supplies are having an educational impact. Teachers noted a variety of benefits, from improved focus to reduced absenteeism.

Chart: Educational benefits of student life essentials items

As her school year begins, Rickee Stewart is ready to keep the momentum going. She’s going to use her fundraising efforts as a lesson in her personal finance class, teaching students how businesses can give back to the local community. And, in the meantime, she’s getting ready for her upcoming wedding. As she put it in an interview with KSL, "My hope is that we get to not only have this amazing wedding and start our lives together but that we are able to put some warmth on all of those kids."

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