ROCKLAND, Maine — If students are coming to school hungry, or in need of a shower or warm clothes, they’re likely going to struggle socially and academically. It’s a scenario that educators at Rockland’s South School, the city’s only elementary school, have seen play out repeatedly.
“We’re expecting to teach these kids and fill all of these academic needs. But we’re not going to be able to do that until their basic needs are met,” third-grade teacher Aly Mitchell said.
Teachers have always bought small things such as snacks or clothing for their students when they see a need. But this year, Mitchell and Heather Anderson, a speech language pathologist assistant, have coordinated an initiative to provide students and their families with items that help meet their basic needs.
The “Comfort Closet” is a no-questions-asked, confidential program that provides students with hygiene products like toothbrushes, shampoo and deodorant, or other items including backpacks, coats and socks.
Parents or students can request items from the closet, or a teacher can make a referral when they see a need for one. Once a request is made, Mitchell or Anderson collect the items and discreetly place them in the child’s backpack so they can take them home.
“We’re not going to differentiate who needs what. If there is an expressed need, we’re going to provide it to them,” South School Principal Justin Bennett said.
Anderson, who has worked at South School for four years, began to notice she had a “high need” of students who needed a snack while they were working on their speech therapy. So she would provide them with one.
But it’s become clear that some students need more than a snack.
“Over the past four years I’ve realized that it’s more than just food that they need. They’re coming in without their basic needs being met,” Anderson said. “For a while now I’ve been thinking, ‘What can we do to help them?’ I’ll buy a sweatshirt here and there for students. But there is a bigger need overall in the building.”
Anderson got the idea for the closet on social media, where a teacher from another state had posted about having a similar program in their school. It seemed to fit perfectly for South School, where the “need is pronounced and has been pronounced for a while,” according to Bennett.
The closet full of amenities is just one way the school is trying to help meet students’ basic needs. Since the level of students at the school who qualify for free and reduced lunch is so high, free breakfast and lunch are provided for every student through a federal program. For a number of years, the school also has provided a program where students in need are sent home with food in their backpacks over the weekend.
With kids spending so much of their time at school, schools have become a support system for meeting the basic needs of students by default.
“If a student comes to school and they’re hungry or they haven’t had a shower, it detracts from their education and puts them under stress,” Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent John McDonald said. “If they can bring home some shampoo or soap or some extra food, this is all a part of our support system for our kids.”
South School is one of four elementary schools in RSU 13, which serves the towns of Rockland, Owls Head, Thomaston, South Thomaston and Cushing. Across the district, a focus has been put on social and emotional learning practices, which place developing healthy communication and decision-making practices on par with academics, according to McDonald.
But, in order for a student to begin working on these social and emotional skills, their basic needs have to be met.
“We have to have their basic needs met before we can focus on their social and emotional needs. And we have to have those needs met before we can work on the academic piece,” Bennett said.
McDonald said there are a number of factors that contribute to students coming to school without these needs being met — generational poverty, family members struggling with substance use disorder, trauma and food insecurity, to name a few.
While programs like the Comfort Closet are key to helping students on a day-to-day basis, both McDonald and Bennett stressed that it’s going to take a lot more from the community as a whole to get to the root of the problem and work toward solving it.
“These kinds of things are wonderful, but this is kind of like the easy stuff. I really need people in the community to understand that. Kid needs a coat, you give them a coat. Kid needs food, you give them food. That’s simple,” Bennett said. “It’s the other pieces that are much more complicated and far more gray that we don’t have solutions for.”
The Comfort Closet is stocked through donations from teachers, parents and other community members. If you’re interested in making a donation, reach out to Heather Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or Aly Mitchell at email@example.com.