OSWEGO — “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted” — Aesop.
Sheila Robison can attest to that. In fact, it is small, random acts of kindness from people in her community that she believes enabled her to achieve the accomplishments she has in life.
Sheila Robison’s early childhood growing up in Independence with her six siblings was good. Her mother was a social worker and her father a police officer, so their needs were met, and life was good.
She enjoyed school, and it was easy for her ... until her fourth-grade year.
It was that year that Robison’s mother began to struggle to manage work and home life as she began battling schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Although a child herself, care of her five younger sisters and brother began to fall on Robison. She began to struggle to keep up in school but began to care less and less about education as she faced learning to cope with life circumstances, Robison told the more than 70 community members gathered before her at Oswego Assembly of God Church Friday morning.
Wiping away tears, Robison told how her mother tried to combat the onset of the mental illness, but her conditioned worsened. In Robison’s fifth-grade year, her father had to quit his job as a police officer to stay at home in the evenings to care for his children. Social Services ended up stepping in momentarily, which was a wake-up call to her mother, but the grip of the mental illness was beyond her mother’s control, and it wore on Robison and her siblings. They lost their home and moved four times, making school even more difficult. Robison watched as her mother would seem to come around for a few weeks and then slip away again.
Her seventh-grade year, Robison’s family moved to Oswego. It was an opportunity for them to start over, but the family faced severe struggles. There were nights they went without food, and Robison watched as her mother spiraled downward, taking her anger out on her children.
School became just another stress in Robison’s life she didn’t need.
But then, the Rev. Phil Hays of Oswego Christian Church began dropping off food. People from other churches in town dropped off food as well.
“Peace and contentment would fill the home at those times,” Robison said. “It seemed every time things reached a low point, someone would come in from the community and give hope.”
Her father found work but struggled to pay the bills and provide for seven children on his own, so when Robison was a sophomore, she decided to get a job to help out. Work was just an additional hardship on her, though. In school, her grades started to fall, but her teachers would not accept it.
“My teachers would push me to my full potential,” she said. “By the time I was a senior, they all knew me and they knew my family’s story. At the end of my senior year, at an awards assembly, the teachers all pulled money together to give me a scholarship to college,” Robison said, tears streaming down her face.
The help she experienced then followed her through college. She worked at Oswego Middle School as a paraprofessional, and the school encouraged her onward.
Robison said she is not sure she could be where she is today, a sixth-eighth-grade math and science teacher at Service Valley Charter Academy, if it was not for the help, care, generosity and compassion of the Oswego community, churches and her teachers.
Wiping tears from her eyes, Robison said her story is not easy to share because her family still lives in Oswego, but she felt it important to share with all those community leaders and school patrons gathered before her their leadership, love, compassion, caring, generosity and shows of respect for youths in their community can change a child’s life, not just in the present moment, but into the future.
It is for just such a purpose that Oswego Bright Futures Connections for Success has been established by the school district.
Every day, teachers see children who have had no breakfast, children who come to school with their shoes held together by duct tape, students who are late to school because they have to take care of their younger siblings and middle school and high school students who are teased because they smell because they have no water at home to shower or wash their clothing. The challenges are similar throughout Southeast Kansas and the country.
Facing just such challenges, and wanting to increase graduation rates and attendance, Joplin school Superintendent C.J. Huff knew he had to do something. Many Joplin students struggled with poverty and lack of parental involvement, and teachers often spent their own time and money to provide for students’ basic needs.
Huff knew solving the problems would take a community effort.
Joplin schools worked with the community to develop a program called Bright Futures that connected community resources with students and families in need through the school system in an effort to tackle poverty and raise student achievement in their community. Initially a grant from the Economic Security Administration Southwest Missouri funded a position within the schools to act as a liaison between the school and community groups. Within the first year, the school district saw exciting and unexpected results. The dropout rate decreased. Attendance increased. Student and staff morale improved.
Bright Futures began to spread to other communities, and in February 2011, using the framework from the Joplin program, Bright Futures USA, a nonprofit organization, was established.
Speaking with Huff about the program, Oswego Superintendent Mark LaTurner saw hope. Along with five others, LaTurner went to Joplin to find out more about the program, which is based first on the development of community supports and then implementing the program.
What Bright Futures has done in other communities, includes:
— Elderly ladies knitting hats and scarves for every student in their local school, using their time to deliver what they could.
— Prisoners at a state penitentiary making blankets for autistic students with tactile needs.
— Another detention center that rebuilt bikes for needy children at Christmas.
— Dads at the Door. A group of fathers that signed up to greet children at an elementary school so students could see adult males in a positive light.
— Reading buddies, who are adults with 20 minutes a week who read and listen to an elementary student read.
— Lunch buddies who eat lunch with needy students.
— Volunteers helping provide after-school programs.
LaTurner said he cannot explain to people what Bright Futures is exactly because it is something different in every community.
“It will be what we make of it,” LaTurner said. “Let me begin by letting you in on the framework that is in place. For the first time ever, we are reaching out to multiple communities. The school, the faith-based community, the human and social services, businesses, parents and patrons,” LaTurner said.
The school district does many things well, LaTurner said, citing its earned Challenge Awards, Academic Excellence Awards and National Blue Ribbon honors.
“But I think we can do better. And to that end, we are reaching out, saying it is not just about what we do between 8 and 3:30. It is about the totality of a child’s life.”
“Folks, our goal with this initiative is to use social media, our churches, word of mouth, neighbor-to-neighbor, friend-to-friend, to change the future of our community tomorrow by meeting the most basic needs of our students today,” LaTurner said. “I could give you a lot of statistics about how six in 10 of our students in Oswego, Kansas, qualify for free and reduced lunches. Or that we are in the bottom three schools in the state of Kansas on economic indicators. Or the first day we opened the clothes pantry at the rec center a few weeks ago, 16 families showed up for coats, shoes and basic clothing needs. Or the family that had no heat two weeks ago as we gathered all the space heaters we could find to deliver to them so our students could try to get a restful night’s sleep to be able to go to school the next day. I could go on and on.
“These are simple little things that mean so much,” LaTurner said. “How many of you can say that teacher or that coach or that minister or that boss really took me in and made a difference in my life? And moistly it was just a little time or an encouraging word.”
There are many children in Oswego and surrounding communities who need help and encouragement. Removing names and details to protect the identity of those involved, LaTurner told of two young children labeled by some as the “dirty kids.”
“A brother and a sister that shared a bed at night. Each showed promise and an inquisitive nature that allowed them to participate in class early in their school years, but they were different and they knew it,” he said.
“Things at home were not just filthy, they were near unbearable in every realm. Water off, then on when they could keep up with the bill. Same for the heat. The house itself was very small, and never was there enough food for the children,” LaTurner said. “Surely others knew of the plight of the children, but we seldom want to look into our neighbors’ affairs and as we have come to accept, DCF (Department of Children and Families) will take care of it if something needs done. Surely law enforcement knows them, and if things get serious, they will take care of it. Somehow, we have accepted that the New Deal of the 30s and War on Poverty of the 60s, or someone, somewhere will take care of this blighted home, these ‘dirty kids.’
“Teachers in their own way saw that they were taken care of,” he said. “A pair of shoes, a coat, gloves we all gave to these children. Hugs and signs of affection, inclusion in games, taking them all in and making them a family is what primary teachers do. But unkempt hair, filthy clothes, shoes that don’t fit were the norm. The future was bleak.
“The police eventually raided the home, and both parents were taken away on methamphetamine charges. The children left the district for a time in foster care. And as the officer later shared with me, when the arrest was made, it was late and the kids hid under the covers, instinctively knowing to remain quiet, being taught that police were people to fear. When the officer shined his flashlight against the wall above the children’s bed, it seemed the wall was moving. It was disorienting. So many cockroaches were on the wall, it had the appearance of movement. And still, the children lay quietly until they were taken away.
“Mom was later released but wasn’t allowed back in the home. The odor of chemicals was overwhelming. The filth, too much to be allowed back in,” LaTurner said. “I want to tell you the end of this story, and that it all goes well, but I can’t. The children are still young, and their story is still being written. I can tell you statistically what will happen to them. I want to be wrong. But, sadly, this is not a rare story, and I ask you, without us, what will happen to them? They had absolutely nothing to do with the situation they are in.”
Far too many studies show the student who is hungry, has no heat, has no role model and is born and raised in poverty will in turn repeat the cycle of poverty and that will pervade the next generation of Oswego residents and the country in general, LaTurner said.
“I’m not saying poor is bad,” he added. “Jesus talked at length about the poor. But he also talks a great deal about the ‘least among us’ and ‘where charity begins.’
“With a mentor, with a caring spirit, Sheila Robison will not be an anomaly,” LaTurner said. “She will be the norm; a civic-minded adult that will sit with her child at night and read a story, that will prepare her child for kindergarten. I wish I could say unequivocally that all kids are taken care of in a like manner, but as she told you, they aren’t.”
The school district has work to do as well.
“One thing we have done well is educate our college-bound. But what is left for the others,” he said. “Are we dooming the student that comes from poverty with no reason to continue schooling or no examples of successful people in their lives to that very poverty they know. As a school system, we need to hand a student a high school diploma and a welding certificate, or HVAC certificate or diesel mechanic certificate so they too can participate in the American dream and not be bound by the world they know but of the possibilities that lie ahead.
“We need Bright Futures,” LaTurner said. “We need you. As you hear these stories, think what you can do and let us know. Seventy-five heads are better than one. Dr. Huff started this program because he knew we need help.”
Oswego Assembly of God pastor the Rev. Steve McBrien spoke “from the faith-based side,” stating the church is very excited to be a part of the initiative and encouraged others present, if their pastors were not in attendance, to share with them about Bright Futures.
“The heartbeat of our church and the heartbeat of Jesus himself was to help those who can’t help themselves,” McBrien said.
Many people experience hard times momentarily and know what it is like to need a helping hand.
“With Bright Futures we’ll be able to do that,” McBrien said. “The school is looking to allow us to come in and do things ... It’s a way for us to bond together and work together. One goal is to work together to do great community service. We want to come to the school and mentor and tutor, and churches have pantries and clothes closets and we want to help. We truly feel the connection of helping others, not just the church. That’s just humanity.
“We just want to do what we need to do in the community to help where ever we can step in to help, from the smallest thing to the biggest thing,” McBrien said. “We need to use our gifts and talents in the community to help others.”
To learn more about Bright Futures, or how, as a community member or organization, you can help make a difference in the life of a needy child, you can visit the Oswego Bright Futures Facebook page, or visit www.brightfuturesusa.org.
“You can’t do everything, but everyone can do something,” McBrien said.