Project REACH lends support to homeless, unaccompanied children

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ORANGE PARK – Homelessness and financial hardship can affect anyone, including Clay County. When those two things affect minors, it often causes even more problems because it can keep said minor from going to school and getting an education. These situations can be all too common. The COVID-19 pandemic has created even more of this, with many people being laid off from their jobs.

Project REACH was designed to help homeless and unaccompanied children residing in Clay County. Minors classified as unaccompanied, are homeless and not in the custody of a parent or guardian. Many children in this condition do not have the means or anyone to provide them with adequate personal hygiene items. In these types of situations, the children will often be reluctant to attend school, and their educational opportunities will invariably suffer. If they do try to attend school, they may be mocked and ridiculed by their peers. Their mental states will suffer as will their performance.

The Backpack Project wanted to help with these problems. They partnered with Project REACH, to try to identify and help unaccompanied children in Clay County.

Project REACH is a local program designed to help such children to enroll and succeed in school. They provide many things to help, such as free school meals, school supplies, transportation, tutoring, and case management. However, Project REACH, as helpful as they are, has limitations in how they can spend money. They aren’t authorized to spend money on hygiene products.

The Rotary Club of Orange Park Sunset decided to help. They purchased 100 backpacks. Hygiene supplies were then purchased. In March, the bags were assembled; 50 for boys and 50 for girls. The girls’ bags contained hygiene items specific to females, including sanitary napkins. On the whole, the bags had shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, bars of soap and toothpaste.

Susana Bentley is with the Rotary Club and was involved in the effort.

“Homeless children; either their parents lost their jobs and cannot pay rent and end up living out of their cars,” Bentley said in an explanation of the status of homeless and unaccompanied children. “Or parents are not involved, and the kids still want to go to school, so they end up couch-surfing and living with their friends. The Rotary Club intended to provide basic necessities for those children so they can continue to go to school.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, though, reared its head and delayed the handout of the bags. Finally, the bags were delivered to Grove Park Elementary School last Wednesday, where they would be handed out to the children who had been identified as unaccompanied youth.

Fourteen members of the Rotary Club of Orange Park Sunset assisted in the preparation of the backpacks.

“The best thing about it,” said Bentley, “Is that we are trying to keep the kids in school so that they can avoid poverty. The longer they stay in school, the better-educated they’re going to be, and the more successful in life they’re going to be.”

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