By LINDA CHION KENNEY
As the bridge between support and donation, educator Catherine Gilmore at Gibsonton Elementary School works full-time to fortify the path to academic success for children in need of food, school supplies, clean clothes, toiletries and mental health resources.
While the needs are great at Gibsonton, they mirror as well those at other schools locally and nationwide, where the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in varying degrees continues to wreak havoc on household budgets, jobs and psyches.
“Over the past three weeks, I’ve helped 10 families facing eviction,” said Gilmore, Gibsonton’s community school coordinator, in a Jan. 22 interview. “It’s getting really bad.”
Gilmore said her aim is to “help, but not dig” as the need grows among proud and tested parents, struggling to make ends meet in pandemic times while battling fears of losing their homes, livelihoods and, possibly, even their children.
“We help without judgment and without any repercussion,” Gilmore said. “That’s the only way we can guarantee that our kids can come to school ready to learn.”
Gibsonton, is one of six schools designated a community school in the Hillsborough County School District. A community school refers to a school that provides an array of services to children and families based on specific community needs. As such Gibsonton reports 95 percent of its students qualify for the free- and reduced-price federal lunch program. That makes the need for providing aid and resources an even more pressing concern in these uncertain times.
According to Gilmore, 560 “unduplicated” individuals a month avail themselves of Gibsonton’s food pantry offerings. Roughly 27 to 30 kids visit the clothes pantry weekly.
The Kiwanis Club of Greater Brandon, with a Riverview satellite and the aid of a Mosaic grant and other fundraising activities, helps stock the on-site Gibsonton food pantry and the Project Smile program, which ensures students and their families have enough food to eat over the weekend, when students cannot avail themselves of the federal meals program.
Gibsonton also stocks with donations a clothes closet that includes school clothes, winter jackets, socks, shoes and underwear. To ensure dirty clothes are not an obstacle to school attendance and learning, the school has an on-site washer and dryer.
In addition to helping families identify local resources and mental health resources, Gilmore, in her role as community school coordinator, also runs a school supplies closet for students and teachers. Among its major donors are the Walmart Supercenter in Gibsonton and the Walmart Neighborhood Market on Big Bend Road in Riverview. Also a generous donor, Gilmore said, is the Bells Shoals Baptist Church Riverview campus.
“If you don’t have the tools you need to learn, you’re at a disadvantage,” Gilmore said, in an interview from the two-year-old Gibsonton school supplies closet, stocked with binders, composition books, backpacks, bicycle helmets, dry-erase markers, copier paper, pens and more. “This is a barrier we need to fix.”
Last summer, after being named Gibsonton’s community school coordinator, Gilmore surveyed staff, parents and students to determine the greatest barriers to school learning. Among the “constructive areas of need” were greater parent engagement, attendance, after-school programming and school-readiness skills.
“Parents don’t really identify that those skills are low in their children,” Gilmore said. “But students who need extra time to learn, they know it. One of the things they repeated often, about what would make their school day better, is coming to school prepared to learn.”
Toward that end, and coming full circle back to the aid provided, Gibsonton as a community school is working hard in partnership with outside businesses and nonprofits to secure the basics for its students and their families, including local and mental health resources.
According to Gilmore, Gibsonton is one of six Hillsborough County public elementary schools designated as community schools, and the only one in south Hillsborough County. The other elementary schools are Greco, Foster Academy, Mort, Potter and Sulphur Springs.
Gibsonton Elementary School is at 7723 Gibsonton Drive. Call: 813-671-5100. For information on the Brandon Kiwanis club and its Riverview satellite, visit: www.BrandonKiwanis.org.