Loudoun‘s ahead of Fairfax again – by a whisker thin margin, it's the richest county in the United States – maybe in the universe.
So there’s no problem with homeless children here. Right?
Wrong, said Donna Fortier, Inova Loudoun Hospital’s community affairs executive, to the nearly 200 guests at the 4th annual Chaplaincy and Community Affairs Summit, hosted by the hospital at the National Conference Center in Leesburg. The theme for 2011 is “Focusing on the homeless children in our community.”
Public schools in Loudoun tallied 659 homeless children, ages 18 and younger, in the 2010 school year, Fortier said. There are surely more, and close to 40 percent of them have no identified parent or guardian.
And most programs that reach out to the homeless population require children 18 and younger to be accompanied by an adult.
Fortier’s answer is Mobile Hope. With the full backing of Inova Loudoun Hospital CEO Randy Kelley, she has launched a program to take the already busy Mobile Health Services van – which for the last ten years has brought wellness services and education out to the population of the county – on regularly scheduled visits to areas where homeless children, and adults, congregate.
It’s not just Sterling and St. Louis, as some might guess, Fortier said. The homeless children are spread evenly across the county.
“Our initiative,” Fortier said, “is to help those 18 years and younger who need any of the following: food, clothes, blankets, personal and hygiene items, and medical care.”
No questions asked. Being homeless, the program’s ID card announces in large letters, is not a crime. Nor is it something to be ashamed of.
Fortier recalled an early Mobile Hope stop. She gave a young girl a bag of toiletries, including a toothbrush. The girl cried – she didn’t have a toothbrush of her own.
Every child served by the van receives an ID card that will keep a record of where the child has been seen and what medical attention has been dispensed. If that child shows up at the emergency room, the attending physicians can scan the card and get some idea of the child’s medical history.
Stacey Bess, keynote speaker at the luncheon, wrote “Nobody Don’t Love Nobody” about her experience teaching homeless children in the Salt Lake City School District starting in 1987 when she was 23. The book has since been turned into the Hallmark movie Beyond the Blackboard.
“We have homeless?” she asked the assistant superintendent who offered her a job in the “school with no name.”
They did, she found out. Her classroom was a metal Quonset hut attached to a homeless shelter under a bridge overpass. No books or desks or blackboards. Students were from six to 12, most of them hungry. She used M&Ms in math class as an incentive, and kept pillows in a corner for exhausted young ones to get a nap.
“Listen with your hearts,” she beseeched the luncheon guests, most of them members of the faith and nonprofit communities that serve as a safety net in Loudoun. “Walk out of here and say, ‘This woman is telling the truth. We can make a difference in the lives of children.’”
In the current economic crisis, Bess noted, a fast-growing social issue is siblings taking responsibility for their families. Such children are overwhelmed.
One of her first challenges was a young man, Zachary, who had been abandoned by his mother when he was 5 – his mother kept some of her children, left others with their father. By the time Zachary showed up in Bess’s “classroom,” he had been to 25 schools. And he was not about to trust a woman.
But she was young and idealistic, she said. She thought could change the world. And her daughter told her, “Why don’t you be the lady in Zachary’s life who never leaves?”
Zachary is grown and married today, and they keep in touch.
“If you counted 600 homeless children,” Bess said, “there are 1,000 of them out there. You are in a position to change the lives of homeless children.”
This is the fourth year for the summit, Inova’s Kelley told guests. The first year, an estimated 40 people came. This year, 200 filled the room.“Our aim is to create and maintain strong links to the faith-based community; to be open and accessible to them, their ideas and their needs; and to serve that community,” Kelley said. “We have work to do. In this resource-rich county, we have to make a big difference. We may not change the world, but we can make a difference in the lives of those we encounter.”
Mobile Hope welcomes donations of money, nonperishable foods, hygiene and toiletry items, blankets, coats, jackets, clothing and shoes. Call Mobile Hope nurses and drivers at 703-858-8801 to learn about the most pressing needs, or e-mail Mobilehope@inova.org.