We are going to take a little trip today. A trip down memory lane. I want you to take a second, close your eyes, and think about grade school. Go back as far as you can. Try to picture your classmates. Picture the odd one. The kid that kind of smelled funny. The one that seemed to always wear the same clothes. The one that maybe other kids made fun of, and didn’t seem very smart. The one that had holes in his or her shoes, or never had a jacket. Now take a minute and think about how you would react if you saw that kid today. Not the person they may have grown into, but the child that you remember. You as an adult may realize that there is a very real possibility that he/she needs help. That something just isn’t quite right. That the situation this child finds his or herself in, is through no fault of their own.
All too often a scene just like this one plays out, and when it does, people are quick to admonish the parents. “Who lets their kid go out like that?” “Why don’t they buy that kid some shoes?” “Why isn’t he wearing a jacket, it’s freezing out here?” People seem to forget about the child that’s freezing right in front of them. It doesn’t matter how that child ended up in this position, he/she needs help right now.
Just outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania there is a program that does exactly that. It is called Project A.S.K., and they help kids. They help any child that needs them within the West Shore School District. I mean it, every single one, and they’ve been doing now for 5 years.
As I tell you about Project A.S.K.’s methods and partners I want you to keep thinking back. Don’t forget about that kid. As a matter of fact I want you to expand the journey. Try to remember all of them. As you progressed through school, people come and go. Some move away with or without notice. Some just seem to fall off of the face of the planet. Sometimes we are the ones that move. Whatever the reason we don’t usually continue our path through school with the people we started it with. The only constant, is that there was always at least one kid that would have benefited from a little help. Think about that for just a minute. The sheer amount of people that pass through your life during your school years. How many different children do you think you saw or knew that may have been picked on or ostracized for a crappy situation entirely outside of their control?
Do the kids in your memories, the ones that needed help, seem a little below average? Were they always struggling to complete their assignments? Did they have trouble comprehending what you thought was common sense? Step into present day for just a minute. Think about a time you were having a particularly bad day. Maybe you were running late and missed breakfast. Maybe you spilled something on your clothes. How hard was it for you to concentrate that day? Were you more concerned with whether or not people could see the stain, or hear your stomach rumble then you were with the office meeting? Did you have trouble doing your work that day? Now try to sympathize with those children from so long ago. Were they not as smart as everyone else, or were they just hungry? Were they ashamed and embarrassed of their old or torn clothing and unable to concentrate?
I’ve recently learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The Hierarchy depicts human needs as a tiered pyramid with the most basic needs at the bottom. The needs at the bottom of the pyramid (Food, water, warmth, sleep) must be satisfied before needs higher up can be attended to. To quote the current president of Project A.S.K. “In the face of hunger, bullying due to the lack of clean clothes, improper clothing for the climate and multiple other issues, learning to multiply 3 x 3 can seem impossible.”
My high school has over 2000 students with 17% below poverty line, 1000 in my middle school with 19% below the poverty line, and 600 students in my elementary school with a whopping 42% below the poverty live. This isn’t yesteryear’s problem. Those are today’s numbers. I know putting it in those terms make it seem like a societal or governmental problem, like if we raise the minimum wage or stabilize the rising cost of living we can reduce those numbers. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. I do know trying to go that route Will Not help any of the children in school now. By the time those things begin to make a real change current students will have children of their own.
This is a problem that we cannot fix by treating the cause. Going straight to the root is forgetting that there is a kid freezing right in front of you. Figuring out why so many families struggle to make ends meet does not feed children starving right now. It does not put kids in clean clothes and let them walk the halls head held high, instead of trying so hard not to be noticed.
Project A.S.K. operates completely without judgement, behind a firewall, and under a cloak of anonymity. The idea is to provide assistance while hiding the identity of the recipient of said assistance. They do this by working through a social worker, and the school nurses. They don’t want students to be pointed out to their peers as needing assistance, in whatever form it may come. One of the ways this is accomplished is all 14 schools in the district is kept stocked with what is called Nurses Supplies. This is a bit of a misnomer because they are actually supplies for needy children, to be distributed as needed at the nurse’s discretion. In this case “needy children” does not necessarily mean poor or under nourished, it literally means a child with a need. Throughout the year things happen. Pants rip. Someone gets sick on themselves or someone else. Food and drink is spilled. There is a stock of season appropriate clothes kept on site, in as many different sizes as needed, dictated by age of students. Everything from boxer briefs for boys and bras and panties for girls, up to pants, shirts, leggings, and even socks. Complete wardrobes are kept on hand for whatever occasion. Sometimes the occasion is that a student showed up for school in shorts and a t-shirt when it was 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside. There is also a supply of bottled water, granola bars, cereal bars and other snacks. Any student can request items from the nurses with no restrictions. The ability to give these things to absolutely anyone who asks, helps encourage kids in trouble to come ask for things without fear of ridicule.
Anything outside of those basic necessities comes through the social worker. Parents or even the students themselves can request help from the social worker, and whatever she can’t find through regular programs will get forwarded to Project A.S.K. or one of its many partners. It takes a village to raise a child, in this case it takes a village of charities and nonprofits to fill all of the holes in government programs. Project A.S.K. has fulfilled all manner of requests from basic school supplies of a kindergartner, to a senior who had all of the required credits but still needed a cosmetology kit to graduate VoTech. The district social worker identifies need within the community, and provides a buffer between the students and the volunteers of Project A.S.K. This buffer stops unfortunate events like the complete public embarrassment of a high schooler when a volunteer sees them in the grocery store and asks them how they like their new clothes in front of their friends. Because sometimes even the most well-meaning individual can, entirely unintentionally, cause more harm than good. That is the last thing Project A.S.K. wants to do.
The important thing to remember is the kids. Could some of the parents asking for help be gaming the system? It’s possible, but it doesn’t matter, because only the kids matter. There are children within the program that don’t take the clothes they are given home because they are afraid their parents will sell them. But because of the social worker, who genuinely cares, they have a safe place to come to school shower and change into their good clothes. Think back to those kids you have been remembering. Would a few extra sets of clothes changed their life? What about easy to prepare food to take home over the weekend? Remembering those children, what would you do to help them?
If you continue to come back to this site you will hear much more about Project A.S.K., and the other groups they work with. I have been close with the family that started Project A.S.K. in 2013 as Compassionate People Who Care before they joined CCU and rebranded for many years. I don’t see that relationship changing anytime soon. The current president is my girlfriend, and I am helping revamp their warehouse inventory management program. So if there is anything you wanted to know that I didn’t cover, it may be coming soon, but you could always leave a comment below and ask. I know the biggest question is going to be “Why only the west shore school district?” Honestly it’s only because they aren’t big enough to take on any more territory. If they thought they could handle it they absolutely would. One of the things they always say is, “If you can put together a group to do the same thing in your area, we will teach you how. We will lay out exactly what we do and show you how to do it.”
If you would like to help Project A.S.K. in their mission you can snail mail checks or money orders, payable to Project A.S.K., to C.C.U., 413 S. 19th St., Harrisburg, PA 17104. Unfortunately, they are not able to accept digital donations at this time. Or contact C.C.U. directly at (717) 230-9550 to make donations or volunteer your time.
If you are interested in expanding Project A.S.K. to your area, and are looking for the building blocks to do so, let me know and I will put you in touch with their president, I have an in.