If a single phrase could describe what Communities In Schools does, “giving hope to children” would be it. But, in reality, the benefit that children receive because of the program is hard to put into words.
Communities In Schools is unlike any other program in the country because of the people who accept the awesome responsibility of furthering its vision. These are the people who work in schools, get to know students and identify ways to help them be successful in life. From finding a tutor for math homework to ensuring that each student has access to food, shelter and clothing–these are the people who are making a difference in the lives of America’s children.
In 2004, Greenbrier became the first county in West Virginia to become a Communities In Schools affiliate. Now, every elementary, middle and high school in the county participates in the program, and it continues to grow.
The organization was founded by self-admitted troublemaker Bill Milliken—a spirit born in Harlem, New York, with a soul forged in Pittsburgh, PA. For nearly half a century, he has dedicated himself to bettering the lives of children.
On Tuesday, November 9, Milliken, along with West Virginia First Lady Cathy Justice, Deputy Superintendent of Schools Michelle Blatt and White Sulphur Springs Elementary School Principal Tina Campbell, sat down with The West Virginia Daily News to talk about Communities In Schools.
“Programs don’t help kids, relationships do,” Milliken said as he began to discuss how his idea for Communities In Schools began.
As a child, Milliken said he had a troubled youth.
“I had a lot of trouble at home and I was hanging out with the wrong crowd. But I had someone help and that made all the difference.”
Milliken, now in his 80s, expressed that the roots of Communities In Schools go back to New York.
“Years and years before we went into the schools, we did a thing called Street Academy, and that’s where we learned,” Milliken explained. “We had college students as teachers, and a bunch of kids living with me who couldn’t get back and forth to the school. That’s where I came up with the idea that if the kids aren’t turned on to living, they’re not gonna get turned on to learning. This was in Harlem, and then the Lower East Side, Bedford Stuyvesant (Brooklyn, N.Y.) that it grew.”
Milliken noted that 70% of those kids in his neighborhood would end up in some form of trouble, in prisons or jails.
“In the neighborhood I lived in in Harlem, over 50% of kids were on the streets,” Milliken said. He added that the economy of the neighborhood spiraled downhill as the population did. No one wanted a grocery store, or even a building in the neighborhood anymore.
“So it’s just very simple – I got helped out when I was in trouble,” Milliken continued. “It was a relationship that changed me, not a program. As I like to say, we didn’t have Facebook – it was in your face book. Love goes where people are, and a kid knows if you believe in them and you’re there for them.”
“A lot of schools are being asked to be mother, father, sister, brother, social worker – everything but teachers,” he said. He knew that had to change. Teachers should be able to teach and someone else should be in the school coordinating student needs.
First Lady Cathy Justice, who has become a champion for Communities In Schools added that “Communities In Schools places site coordinators in various schools. We wish we could be in every school in every county, but that’s not possible financially.”
As of the start of the 2021/2022 academic year, 167 site coordinators were positioned in schools across West Virginia.
“The site coordinator becomes the point person,” Justice further explained. “In most schools, they have their own room. They have a food bank, they have a clothing closet. And the children come there if they need to talk. They visit with the site coordinator on a regular basis.”
Site coordinators are the heart of the program. Tasked with an often overwhelming responsibility, these individuals serve as advocate, confidant, and, when necessary, a trusted friend for students.
“The site coordinators are freeing the teachers up to teach. In some instances, teachers were doing laundry. The kids would come with dirty clothes or they hadn’t bathed,” Justice said. “Teachers love this program because it actually let’s them do what they went to school for and what they studied for. And for the site coordinator, one the premises of the program is meeting the basic needs of the child. Food, clothing, shelter, medicine – if you don’t have those things you can’t be expected to learn.”
Justice continued that when she first became aware of Communities in Schools, she knew she wanted to help support the program.
“I knew just a little bit about it (CIS) from being here in Greenbrier County,” Justice said. “It was hard to explain what it really is, what is Communities In Schools? I saw some examples of children being given beds that were taken to their home, and just the bonds that they were creating with the site coordinators. One young girl, she was in high school, they helped get her an apartment. I know that sounds crazy and drastic, but she was surely just on her own. They cared about her. I want every child. . .to feel good about themselves. They’ve got to know, whatever situation they’re in, they’ll be able to get out of that. They’ve got to have hope that they can have a great life. I want children to have hope that they can be something in life.”
Between 2018 and 2020, and due, in large part, to the First Lady’s efforts, 30 additional West Virginia counties have become Communities In Schools affiliates, including White Sulphur Springs Elementary, now under the leadership of Principal Tina Campbell.
Milliken told Campbell that when he walked into the school, he could feel the level of care that each child received.
“I could tell when I walked in here, I mean, I go to a lot of schools, but I was blown away when I walked in here,” Milliken said. “You can tell this is a safe environment for kids.”
Campbell responded that part of the safe environment is due in large part to Communities In Schools and her school’s site coordinator.
“Communities In Schools gives kids hope when they least expect it, regardless of the situation that was handed to them,” Campbell said. “Sometimes the kids who are in Communities in Schools, at the elementary level, don’t realize that they need support, but the site coordinator is able to provide it…it’s kind of that secret support that they need to help get them through the day.”
She noted that the bond the site coordinator is able to develop with each student elevates their confidence.
“They know that the site coordinator will check on them,” Campbell concluded.
“The biggest impact is the fact that [children] have someone at each school who they know they can trust and they have formed a relationship with,” added Michelle Blatt. “If they are struggling with something at home, or academically, or if there is something that they need like shoes or clothing, they know that is somebody they can count on to take care of that need.” She added that once a child knows their basic needs will be met, then they can begin to achieve academic success.”
At Communities In Schools of Greenbrier County, they believe that every child deserves what is referred to as the “5 Basic Needs.” They are: A one-on-one relationship with a caring adult; a safe place to learn and grow; a healthy start and a healthy future; a marketable skill to use upon graduation; and a chance to give back to their community.
Across West Virginia, as well as across the nation, Communities In Schools is helping children improve their academics, their attendance and their behavior. It is helping families create a nurturing environment, and provide the necessities so that children can get “turned on to learning.” It is through the efforts of Bill Milliken, Cathy Justice, Michelle Blatt, Tina Campbell, and the hundreds of devoted individuals involved with the CIS program that many of West Virginia’s children have someone there to help them.
Most of this work couldn’t be done if it had not been for the vision Milliken had all those years ago.
Lyrics to a song by Elton John “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” comes to mind:
Until you’ve seen this trash can dream come true
“You stand at the edge while people run you through
And I thank the Lord
There’s people out there like you
I thank the Lord there’s people out there like you…”
Communities In Schools is helping our kids turn around and say good morning to the night.