Inocente, the Middle School, and the Care Closet

LACONIA — For most children, a sleep-over at a friend's house is a rite of passage — the ability to spend the night away from home.

For some children in Laconia, a sleep-over can be life-saving.

"We know we have a pattern of students who are homeless and a percentage of them are couch-surfing because of problems in the family," said Middle School Principal Eric Johnson.

On Feb. 17, the Laconia Middle School will host the community as they view "Inocente," an award-winning film that spotlights one girl's attempt to combat her homelessness with her art.

Trying to address some of the problems within families is Stand Up Laconia, a growing coalition of adults and students who want to come together to create positive change for students.

Clare Persson, who is the chair of Stand Up Laconia, said the many of the students she knows don't want to live in a city that is tagged as a place where drug abuse and alcoholism seems rampant. She said many of the kids that Stand Up Laconia and Freedom Found at the high school level is to give some support to the youngsters who don't want to do drugs or drink.

"These kids see a lot, and they're up against a whole different thing than when we were young," she said.

She said her organization isn't necessarily on the front lines addressing acute homelessness, but rather is one of those entities that can help mitigate it by encouraging students not to make some of the choices their parents made.

"These kids are sick of Laconia being associated with drug abuse and alcoholism," Persson said.

She said her organization is there to support these students.

"Quite a bit of it is just poverty," said Johnson, who said he sees a lot of single parents who are working and just scraping by and who suddenly find themselves without a home and forced to stay with friends and family.

For the Middle School, ground zero is often the guidance office and the nurse's office. He said he has had children who often move three or four times in one school year — often from neighboring school districts.

He said his guidance staff stays in very close contact with the guidance staff in other area school districts to better help coordinate students whose families are moving in or out of the district.

"It comes in waves," he said. "We'll go a month or two and have none, and then we'll get six or seven students who are in transition."

Working together, Stand Up Laconia and the staff and students of the Middle School have put together the Care Closet — a place where students who are struggling financially and/or couch surfing can get items they otherwise would be unable to afford.

Johnson said the Care Closet is open to all students who are struggling financially.
He said the closet is stocked with personal hygiene items and clothes that are donated by the staff and the faculty.

He added that are left in the school's lost-and-found for more than four weeks go in the Care Closet.

"It's all confidential and coordinated through the nurse's and the guidance offices," said Johnson. He said the goal is to help these children without calling attention to their circumstances.

Johnson said the number of Middle School students who are struggling and tacitly homeless is "staggering."

"People would be surprised if they knew," he said, adding that 69 percent of the students at Elm Street Elementary Schools and about 70 percent of the students at Woodland Heights Elementary School are eligible for the free-and-reduced lunch federal programs that the school district uses as an indicator for poverty.

The "Inocente" program begins at 5:30 p.m. with a dinner on Feb. 17 at the Laconia Middle School and the 30-minute film at 6 p.m. The goal is to bring all of the agencies — including the school district and Stand Up Laconia — together and learn what a girl like Inocente would find if she were to come to Laconia.