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Prairie family was homeless, till people helped
First, College Community schools assisted, then social services, nonprofits gave a hand up
CEDAR RAPIDS — When Ashley Barr and her two children — first- and third-graders at Prairie Ridge Elementary School — left an unsafe living situation, they had nowhere to go and Barr wasn’t sure who to turn to.
Social service agencies found the family a place in a shelter in Waverly, 75 miles away from Cedar Rapids where Barr’s children went to school in the College Community School District.
“As a mother, I feel like my children were put through a lot they didn’t deserve,” Barr said. “I’m sad that’s the route life went, but at the same time I knew we had to leave. It made me feel liberated. I did something nobody in their wildest dreams thought I was capable of doing.“
After letting her children’s Prairie Ridge teachers know what was going on, they put Barr was put in touch with Javier Rivera, one of the district’s community engagement specialists.
Although the school couldn’t transport her children from Waverly to Cedar Rapids for school because of a shortage of bus drivers, they were able to reimburse Barr for the travel.
“That helped immensely,” Barr said. “It helped put gas in the tank so I still had money for the kids’ necessities.”
Many school districts now have community engagement specialists to help families when they’re having problems with housing, utilities, basic needs, legal or substance abuse problems. They also provide support to immigrant and refugee families as they navigate a new country and language.
And they provide support to families facing safety, domestic violence, mental health, physical health and child care concerns.
“There’s someone in the district who will be your advocate,” Rivera said.
All families have to do is contact their child’s teacher or building principal.
Barr also was able to make use of the Prairie Cares food assistance program.
The market — located in Prairie High School — is available to all Prairie students and families. Families can place an order to pick up a food box on Thursdays containing dry goods, bread, fresh food and hygiene products.
Barr said It would have been “a billion times easier” to enroll her children in the Waverly school district than to make the 150-mile round trip to and from Cedar Rapids.
But she said it was important to her that her children to stay in their classrooms where they had friends and had built positive relationships with their teachers.
“I would go to war for the College Community School District,” said Barr, who now works in the district’s Early Childhood Center.
The family dog
During all the disruption in their lives, animal control officers took away the family’s dog, a 1-year-old Dobson Jack Russell terrier named Pebbles, because he was behind in his vaccinations, including the one for rabies.
“The kids and I were absolutely devastated. It destroyed us. Words can’t even describe how I felt,” said Barr, adding she “didn’t have the means” at the time to take the dog to a veterinarian.
The Iowa Humane Alliance, a nonprofit in Cedar Rapids, neutered, vaccinated and clipped Pebbles’ nails at no charge to Barr.
Now in a house
After living in the Waverly shelter for four months, Barr and her children were able to move back to Cedar Rapids into a three-bedroom house, a home made possible through Friends of the Family, another nonprofit.
Barr said she and her children can live there for “a year or two” while she gets on her feet. About 30 percent of her income goes toward rent. “They are working with me to build that financial stability,” she said.
When her children look back on this difficult time, Barr said, she hopes they know their mother “took a stand” for a better life for her and her kids.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to make,” Barr said. “It was worth a lot of tears and a lot of waiting.”
She wants other families not to be afraid to reach out to their school if they are facing housing insecurity.
“All pride aside, there’s people willing to help,” she said.
Helping kids succeed
Rivera said he works with between 50 and 60 families each year in the College Community district who are facing homelessness. That number rose to almost 100 families at the start of the pandemic in 2020, he said.
When Rivera learns of a family experiencing homelessness, he makes that family his priority, connecting them with social services and nonprofits in Cedar Rapids to help them “bounce back,” he said.
“I recommend families be relentless” in seeking help, Rivera said.
“We want to help be part of solving the problem and make things simple and less stressful for kids,” Rivera said. “We want every kid at school every day on time. That’s the goal.”
Laura Medberry, executive director of learning supports at Prairie, said schools have academic, social and emotional support services to help students who are experiencing adversity, including homelessness.
“There’s no reason to be ashamed of anything that is a barrier to education,” Medberry said. “We want to partner with families and keep chipping away at those barriers, so kids can be kids, appreciate their school experience, be here every day and be successful.”
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