Every Tuesday and Thursday, dozens of BVSD staff members hit the road, picking up food, books and supplies, before safely hand-delivering them to the doorsteps of the district’s most vulnerable families.
Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor the threat of COVID-19 have deterred this hardy group, which is largely made up of community liaisons from BVSD schools. In the days immediately after school closed because of the coronavirus, they stepped forward to support families who, for a variety of reasons, cannot leave their homes during this crisis.
“This army of volunteers has emerged with generosity and a team spirit,” said BVSD Director of Equity & Partnerships, Ari Gerzon-Kessler.
Recently, media outlets captured a glimpse of the work that our team has been doing, by following two of BVSD’s early childhood community liaisons. CBS4 followed Caitlin Guerrie, who serves Birch Elementary School in Broomfield and the Daily Camera followed Fabi Gomez of Alicia Sanchez Elementary School.
Effort birthed from necessity
Gerzon-Kessler says the entire effort started when he and his team realized that without intervention, BVSD families might go hungry.
“We were heading into Spring Break and I knew the Emergency Food Distribution was shutting down,” Gerzon-Kessler recalled. “It hit me that families would be trying to survive on the food we gave them for 12 days.”
In collaboration with BVSD Food Services and the district’s foundation, Impact on Education, they were able to arrange a special delivery for families that needed help the most.
“We gave out gift cards and food bags – so our families would not go hungry,” said Gerzon-Kessler.
He says the staff members representing BVSD schools -- which in addition to liaisons included a few principals, counselors and other school staff – immediately volunteered to help.
“They have jumped forward. It is greatly uplifting,” said Gerzon-Kessler. “It was during Spring Break, they never got paid a penny for taking most of their Wednesday to do that.”
A trusted face in a crisis
Beyond being appreciative for the supplies, families were thankful to see someone they know and trust during such a tumultuous time.
“It is huge. When they see me, their faces light up,” said Gomez. “Families have loved the fact that they’re not alone. Isolation is difficult. These conditions are hard. To know we are there and we care about them is huge. They feel connected.”
“It is not just the resources that they are bringing to families. This is the only representative of BVSD that they are getting this face-to-face with – at a distance,” Gerzon-Kessler said.
“When they are going to the doorsteps and safely interacting with families, they are an ear to better support our teachers and principals and other staff. They are able to garner better insight to help us better fill voids.”
“I have a feeling that these porch conversations will sometimes give us a more candid view of what they truly need,” said Gerzon-Kessler. “There is something different that happens when we let go of the position of power that we inhabit when we ask families to come to us. Instead of inside a classroom or a hallway, when we are standing on a family’s porch, I think that in itself opens them to speak more candidly and transparently about what is going well, what they need and what could better help them and their children.”
That was one of the biggest reasons that the Equity and Partnerships team worked with district leadership to authorize liaisons to continue and even expand this work. Now when they visit they are able to offer even more resources, from ensuring families have internet to providing school supplies to even running to the pharmacy. Whatever the families need.
“It is the logical, natural thing to have liaisons have a stack of books that they can give out because the liaisons are becoming the bookstore and library to families right now. They are the supermarket and pharmacy for our families that can’t get out right now,” Gerzon-Kessler said.
A bridge over troubled waters
The liaisons, rightfully, see themselves as bridge-builders in the community.
“I’m the connection between the family and the schools and their needs, to help them learn,” said Gomez.
“Sometimes it is helping to bridge between initiatives and departments,” Guerrie added.
Both have been building bridges and relationships since the beginning of the school year. Every year, BVSD’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) staff, including teachers, paraprofessionals and community liaisons, visit students’ homes.
“I connect as a mom. I connect as a BVSD employee. I introduce them to people or guide them through the system. It is hard to know the district when you don’t know the language or don’t know the system or it is your first kid. It can be really hard,” Gomez said.
During those 50 to 60 visits every year, she says that she and the other ECE team members get to know far more about the families and ways that they and the district can support them, not to mention it gives them a trusted ally in the building before they ever step foot in the school.
“It is super powerful,” Gomez said. “They come into the building, already knowing someone and having that connection. It makes it so much easier for them. When they know a person, they feel faith and trust.”
“I have families that will say, ‘I’m so sorry that I’m taking up so much of your time,” said Guerrie. “I tell them, ‘no, this is what my time is for. This is for you to have this space to really not feel alone, even if it is just for a few moments.’ It is important for them to have someone they can anchor to and can call for help.”
Over the past couple years the Equity & Partnerships team has been working to encourage teachers in every grade to engage in home visits, as a way to strengthen relationships with their families. With the pandemic, the role of the liaisons and the importance of the relationships they build have been highlighted.
“They were appreciated beforehand – but now everyone is seeing them as more essential,” Gerzon-Kessler said. “Schools are noticing that gap and trying to fill it somehow. They have stepped up and met the much greater challenges as a system now. Their generosity and steadiness during these difficult times has been phenomenal.”
Meeting families’ basic needs
While the support the liaisons offer is needed every day, it is even more crucial during this unprecedented crisis. With the economy brought to a sudden halt and families ordered to stay home, more families than ever before are needed a helping hand.
“We in Boulder County have more needs than can be met,” Gerzon-Kessler said. “A deep wish that I have is that liaisons and the families themselves will illuminate their needs, so we can better serve them in the future.”
The stories the liaisons have been hearing are heartbreaking.
One of BVSD’s liaisons from one of BVSD’s middle schools serves 31 families and only two of them still have employment.
“These are circumstances that are beyond what we ever expected,” Guerrie said. “I have been relieved to have leadership [in the Boulder Valley School District], from the top down that is looking out for families.”
Gerzon-Kessler says the staff at Platt are supporting a family that has several children and five days before their baby was born, their car was totaled.
“They would have been sitting there stranded and struggling, if Brooke, their principal, and Dawn, their counselor, hadn’t stepped up and said, ‘we’ll do deliveries,’” Gerzon-Kessler said.
Knowing the need that exists, several of the liaisons have already offered to work into the summer, even though their contract typically ends with the school year.
Support the effort: Donate to Impact on Education
While many of our families are struggling, if you are in a place where you can contribute to support others in the community, consider giving to Impact on Education’s Critical Needs Fund. Our foundation is raising money to continue to provide support to our families during this difficult time, as well as to nurture students who have not had equitable access to education through Home Learning.