Connecting Homeless Students and Families in Need to Resources

HEART Program year-end event celebrates community, introduces families to summer services and programs

By Myers Reece
A boy climbs a rock wall at the HEART (Homeless Education And Resources Together) Program’s End of the School Year Summer Block Party on June 7. HEART is a nonprofit organization that provides resources and programs for students in the Kalispell and Evergreen school districts who are experiencing homelessness. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A program that provides support for homeless students in the Kalispell and Evergreen public school districts held a year-end event earlier this month to celebrate the community and connect students and families to summertime resources.

Last school year, the Kalispell-based HEART Program served 350 students experiencing homelessness of some kind. Nichole Heyer, the HEART director, said the June 7 event introduced families to other resources that can help fill in the gaps now that HEART has closed for the school year. Heyer also said she answers her phone through the summer and continues helping students and families in need.

“Families I work with don’t always know what’s available,” Heyer said. “The truth is there are lot of free programs (families) could benefit from, but traditionally those bridges haven’t been built. But they should be.”

Heyer, who is the homeless education liaison for the Evergreen and Kalispell school districts, says kids who meet the definition of homelessness, which is broader in scope than for adults, can typically be divided into three groups: those with more stability living month to month, perhaps with extended family or a fellow student’s family; those living week to week, who likely can count on dinner each night but don’t know where they’ll be living a week out; and those living night to night, perhaps out of cars.

“They don’t know if there’s going to be dinner when they get off the school bus or what they’re going to walk into,” Heyer said of the most precariously sheltered kids.

Regardless of where the students fit on that spectrum, they all need supports and resources. The nonprofit HEART Program, which stands for “Homeless Education and Resources Together,” provides those services during the school year, through its Locker, Locker Learning Center, Markets and Fund programs. Its mission is to encourage “growth and graduation by helping meet the basic needs of Kalispell and Evergreen students struggling with homelessness.”

The Locker is a free store that dispenses donated clothing, hygiene products, bedding, school supplies and more to K-12 students. The Learning Center, which opened in fall 2018, provides a quiet and safe space for students to complete homework, study, use a computer, connect with resources, find employment and more.

“We’ve essentially built a community center,” Heyer said.

HEART Markets are located on school grounds and provide supplemental means for feeding students after school in partnership with the Flathead Food Bank. Finally, the HEART Fund raises and dispenses funds to address specific needs for students and families in distress.

The Kalispell school district provides day-to-day operating costs of the HEART Program, but the fund pays for needs such as rental assistance for teenage students living on their own, winter boots, lice-treatment kits, gas cards and more.

While the HEART Program operates on the school district’s calendar, meaning it stops operations when the school year ends, the June 7 event at the HEART Locker, which drew 550 people, introduced the families to other services that remain in full swing throughout the summer.

Among those, Heyer said, are the Kalispell school district’s Summer Food Program, which provides free breakfast and lunch all summer; ImagineIF Libraries, which has a robust lineup of kids’ programs; Family Life and Canvas churches; Serious JuJu; Salvation Army, which has a wide array of programs; Kalispell Parks and Recreation; and Lone Pine State Park, which hosts regular family-oriented activities.

Heyer was named the 2018 national homeless education liaison of the year by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Heyer said under federal law, all school districts nationwide have a homeless education liaison, although in rural areas it’s often a staff member or administrator who falls into that role, rather than a knowledgeable specialist committed full-time.

Heyer said the Evergreen and Kalispell school districts have not only been tirelessly supportive of her liaison role, they have also encouraged her position as the head of the nonprofit HEART Program. And she said the community has consistently stepped up to the plate through volunteers and donations.

“There’s no way I could have done this without this community and good humans going out of their way to help,” she said.

For more information, visit www.kalispellheartprogram.com or call (406) 890-0639.