For many students, the greatest obstacles to graduation lay far beyond the classroom.
Last week, we gathered for a luncheon to honor an especially dedicated contingent of the Class of 2019: students living in homeless situations.
There are more than 160 graduates who fit that broad definition this year. Across Polk County Public Schools, there are nearly 3,200 students experiencing homelessness — which includes students (and their families) forced to stay with relatives and friends; or those living in budget motels, shelters, substandard housing and makeshift camps.
Graduation marks a turning point for many of these young men and women, who will now be heading to college and technical school. The annual luncheon at Bartow Civic Center recognizes their extraordinary determination and success.
“Many of these students have been living in a homeless situation, in some cases, for a good portion of their lives. That has presented a lot of barriers at times to their education,” said Ben Ruch, the homeless services coordinator with PCPS’ Hearth Project. “The fact that they’ve been able to overcome these obstacles is a huge accomplishment. (This luncheon) shows that the community cares about them and is proud of them.”
The students who attended the luncheon received donated tablet PCs, and care packages with gift cards, blankets, hygiene items and other supplies.
The event also serves a simpler purpose:
“It’s important for students that don’t get to have a graduation party, (who don’t) have much money,” said Jordan Johnson, a Winter Haven High student. “We get to attend this event so that we have something to be recognized with.”
Johnson will be heading off to ministry school after graduation. He wants to become a chaplain in the Army.
We owe a special thanks to our Learning Support Division Sunshine Committee, and all who help support our students and families living in homeless situations. To learn more, please click here to visit the Hearth Project’s page.