UW Sunday Column 6-22-14: Providing Youth Direction Through Compass

Julie Stapleton: Providing youth direction through the Compass Program
As originally published in the State Journal-Register, Our Towns section

juliestapleton1We have all heard the saying “changing with the times.” This is actually one of my dad’s favorites as I am sure he thinks he is still “current” with today’s styles and sayings. I can assure you that he is not. But he is correct to the extent that as we go through life we do try to look towards the future, and make adjustments to ourselves along the way. But what about the needs of our community? How do they “change with the times?” For Family Service Center, this meant stepping outside of its traditional role as a center for foster care and adoption services, and instead addressing immediate and upcoming needs in the Springfield area by expanding the Compass Program in the fall of 2012.

In the following school year, 662 homeless children were identified in Springfield schools. The federal definition of homelessness is to lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. For most of the homeless children in Springfield, that means they are living “doubled up” with family or friends, in a low-rent motel, or in substandard housing. Homeless children change schools on average 3.2 times per year.

Homeless children have equal abilities as other children, but because stressful and transient home lives, they are at greater risk for behavior problems and poor academic performance. Research by Bassuk and Rubin indicates that 43% of homeless students’ repeats a grade, 25% are placed in special education, and 50% are failing academically. They also have three times the rate of emotional and behavior problems compared to non-homeless children according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.

I have served on the board of Family Service Center for 5 years, and when the Executive Director, Erin Predmore, told us about these children and the challenges they faced, we knew we wanted to help even though it would take the agency in a new direction, and in turn expand our mission. Erin worked with Molly Berendt, who had started this program, and with the help of United Way, the Compass Program was created. Compass provides academic and enrichment programming to homeless and low-income children in Springfield School District 186. Compass currently serves seven schools: Black Hawk, Dubois, Graham, Harvard Park, Hazel Dell, Matheny-Withrow, and Washington Middle. The Compass program has both an after-school and a summer component. Together, Compass leads to increased school engagement, improved social and emotional development, and improved academic performance.

Compass is unlike any other program in Springfield. All of the schools we partner with are Title I, which means 70% or more of the students are low-income. Within those schools, we target specific students based on certain criteria (homeless status, parent incarcerated, and food insecure) and we remove all possible barriers to program participation (cost, large amount of paperwork, transportation). A team at each school, made up of the Principal, Assistant Principal, Social Worker, Parent Educator, and/or Secretary, as well as classroom teachers, refers students to our program.

Compass is intentionally designed to meet the unique needs of these students. Compass after-school program offers help with homework, Life Skills classes, a family-style dinner, and transportation to/from the program. With the support of 19 community partners (16 churches, 1 synagogue, and 2 student groups), and 150 volunteers, Compass is able to make a meaningful impact on the lives of hundreds of Springfield’s neediest students. Our volunteer-driven, community-based program is able to bring together adult volunteers with students who need mentors and positive adult relationships. Not only do we offer children a safe, happy place, but we show them that there are community adults who care about them, which is confirmed through relationships that last for years.

This month, Compass received some exciting news. An anonymous donor has pledged to match every donation received through June 30th to support the summer Camp Compass program. This means that whatever you donate has double the impact. If you donate $40, or the amount to sign a child up for swim lessons, our donor will match your $40 and sign another child up for lessons. For all of the children to go to the Children’s Discovery Museum in Bloomington it is $450 for admission and $675 for transportation. Admission at Springfield’s Henson Robinson Zoo is $214. Swimming at the Nelson Center is $360. These are fun summer activities that are possible through donations. Please go to our website today to learn more: http://www.service2families.org.

What does the future hold for these children? With programs like Compass and Camp Compass, we are creating opportunities for success.

Julie Stapleton is a board member of Family Service Center. Look for United Way columns weekly in Our Towns.