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Mifflin County educators aid homeless students

Educators in the Mifflin County School District were surprised to learn there were 55 homeless students in the district, but when they did they acted.

The revelation came when Michelle Siruc, a confidential secretary and the district’s homeless liaison, approached the Association of Mifflin County Educators about using a dress-down day right before Thanksgiving as a means of raising funds to help homeless students – teachers were asked to contribute $5 to wear jeans.

The dress-down day raised $1,200, but it turned out to be much more than a one-day event. The district and the association have joined to create a pantry for homeless students stocked with toiletries, school supplies, and other items.

“It really raised awareness among our members,’’ said Valerie Baker, the association’s communications chair. “They weren’t aware there were that many homeless children in our district. And once they found out, they really got involved.’’

So did the community after the association got the word out via social media and other outlets, and the local newspaper ran a story about the district’s and the educators’ efforts. Donations are coming from parents, and local businesses and organizations.

Siruc noted homelessness often isn’t thought to be a problem in a heavily rural district like Mifflin County, located in PSEA’s Central Region.

She said the community’s surprise to hear of the large number of homeless students “is pretty typical of rural homelessness. You don’t see people on the street, or under bridges like you do in cities.’’

Homeless students aren’t necessarily going without a roof over their heads at night, but are doing what Siruc said is called “couch surfing.’’ Because of circumstances, they may be moving around from house to house – for example, staying at one friend’s house one night, and at another the next. And some may be living in shelters.

Youth are considered homeless under state guidelines if they are lacking a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence. School districts are required by law to provide transportation to these students, and they can also have college application fees waived.

In addition to the $1,200 raised from the dress-down day, Siruc said financial donations are coming in from the community and the money is being placed in a fund to purchase items for homeless students beyond the items in the pantry – things such as eyeglasses, or athletic shoes for students who want to participate in sports.

“You can’t learn academics if your life has so many things that are out of order,’’ said Diane Shearer, association president. “If you don’t know what you’re going to eat or where you’re going to sleep, learning history and science is not the main goal. The main goal is survival. If we can provide them with supplies needed to live normally for those seven hours that they are here, the likelihood of educating them is much better.’’