When Dr. Joshua Delich arrived to become principal at Lake Highlands High School in 2017, he knew the student population included recent immigrants, families living below the poverty line and even homeless kids. His experience leading Polytecnic High School in Fort Worth taught him it’s tough to learn when you haven’t eaten or you don’t have clothes to wear, and he was determined to help.
So where does a principal turn when he needs to make something happen? The PTA, of course.
Then-president Allison Griffin and her team were all-in to collect and distribute food and clothing to needy kids, but they needed money to acquire the goods and space to hold and dispense them. It seemed like a long shot.
Fast forward a year, and LHHS’ new drop-in center has become a reality. Located in the H building (formerly called the Freshman Center) between the counselor’s office and the Communities In Schools (CIS) office next to the old nurse’s station, counselors, CIS staff, school administrators and teachers refer students to the unit, which PTA volunteers have lovingly named The Wildcat Den, or simply The Den.
“Dr. Delich really went to bat with the district to get this space for us to use,” Griffin told me during my tour. “Our high school is still supportive of and very involved in the RISD Clothes Closet, of course, but this handles urgent needs on our campus.”
Around the edges of the room, racks of coats and clothing rub against shelves packed high with boxes of food. Crates of fruit are stacked in the corner.
“This has been like a full-time job for PTA board members Kelly Bond and Jeanne-Marie Gisellu, who have spent dozens of hours this fall spearheading donation drives, building shelves, buying groceries and organizing donated clothes and food to get this idea off the ground,” said Griffin.
The project took on new life when it earned a grant from 100 Women of Lake Highlands, a group of philanthropists who support neighborhood causes.
“[PTA board member] Ann Halwas urged us to apply for their grant, and we got it this fall. That kicked us into high gear.”
100 Women were particularly drawn to the goal of providing fresh food, an idea that resulted in “Fresh Fruit Fridays.” Volunteers roll out fruit carts each Friday morning and offer free apples, oranges and bananas to every student as they enter the school. The cart encourages healthy eating and discourages skipping breakfast.
“That first Friday, the kids avoided eye contact,” Griffin admitted, “and they were clearly wondering, ‘why are these moms trying to give me an apple?’ Now they are asking if they can have another piece for later. Some kids say they never get fresh fruit at home.”
Many LHHS parents chip in to help, donating foods and signing up for shifts, but not all are aware of the overwhelming need. More than 50 homeless students arrive at LHHS each day, and 56% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.
“We have every income level here, every language spoken,” said Gisellu. “We have million dollar homes and people living at the Budget Suites or in their cars. We have a little slice of the world, which is amazing because all of these kids are in school together.”
“Our family has a little different perspective because we’re coming out of private school,” said current PTA president Kiersten Stockham, previously a Hockaday parent. “I’ve never seen such a community that takes care of its own. I’m telling you — this community rallies.”
Freshman English teacher Melissa Fritsche told me she’s grateful for the work of the PTA.
“My students are really excited on Friday because they get to have that fresh fruit in the morning. One who missed it the first time made a special effort to catch it the next week.”
The team says the drop-in center is currently stocked with food, but if you’d like more information about contributing clothing, food or cash, email LHWildcatDen@gmail.com.
Originally published at lakehighlands.advocatemag.com on December 17, 2018.