Schools, Special Reports

In Malheur County, school workers step in to care for children short of food, clothing

Tobey Huddleston, principal at Aiken Elementary School in Ontario, knows teachers are doing more than teaching math or English.

“If you’re a teacher, you’re a counselor. You’re a nurse. You’re a nanny. You’re in everything,” Huddleston said.

Schools in Malheur County increasingly are shouldering the responsibility of teaching life skills, providing food, supplies, housing, transportation and more to their students. Many educators say they are overwhelmed and education is getting lost.

Chronic absenteeism means many students miss out on this crucial support. At Vale High School, fewer than half the students attend schools most of the time.

Lisa Barras, a Vale Elementary School counselor, recalled a child and their large family around Christmas. The child’s home was clean but meager – the furniture consisted of one couch. In place of a Christmas tree, the family had green lights strung in the outline of a tree on a wooden stump. It was surrounded by a nativity set with inch-tall figurines.

Barras helps organize Christmas for Kids. The school partners with local residents and businesses to provide Christmas presents for families in need. The school staff coordinates wrapping and delivering gifts to about 50 children every winter.

As she delivered gifts to that one family, Barras realized the school was providing the only presents they would receive.

Schools serve as sanctuary

Lucas Tackman, until recently the principal of Vale High School, said students carry immense baggage through the school doors, the result of emotional challenges, mental health issues and financial poverty.

Tackman said students do not always know how to deal with and express their emotions. Educators try to help them work through such burdens.

Defining child poverty

Children who grow up in families enduring economic hardship can be impoverished by lack of life’s basic needs. They often do not have a stable supply of food, adequate and safe shelter, means for education or care for their medical and mental health traumas. As a consequence, children’s physical, cognitive and emotional development is affected.

“My mantra has always been that you have to teach to the whole child,” said Cindi Herren, a sixth-grade teacher at Alameda Elementary School in Ontario. “Anybody can walk in here and teach introduction to algebra. I try to nurture their whole soul. Many of them have trauma and come to me very hungry for attention and very hungry for acceptance.”

Educators say many children are in a constant state of stress, their lives filled with upheaval as families struggle for basic needs.

“Parents [are] earning a paycheck but they’re under chronic stressors,” said Anabel Ortiz-Chavolla, the Ontario School District director of federal programs. “They are living day to day, hour to hour.”

The pressure to help support their families is one of these stressors. With agricultural-based employment being one of the only options for income in Malheur County, some parents depend on their kids to bring in additional income.

According to a four-year study conducted by the Oregon Housing and Community Services, the average farmworker family in Oregon earns $20,000-$25,000 per year. That compares to a median household income in Malheur County of $47,906, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Bobby DeLeon, now a mental health specialist in the Nyssa School District, worked his family farm along with his 17 siblings. He recalls waking up at 5 a.m., getting his hands caked with dirt and smelling like onions for the rest of the day. When he was 6, his 17-year-old brother often took care of him – and they got into trouble while left unsupervised by working parents.

Schools cannot teach children how to be parents, but they can teach the coping skills needed to handle the resulting anxiety. Some schools have established “calming rooms” as a safe space for kids to de-escalate and learn to handle their emotions.

Barras said one parent recently told her she had only three hours sleep because she was holding two jobs. Barras wonders how the parent would have time to teach life skills to her children. 

Educators constantly provide comfort and counseling.

“The first half an hour of my day is giving kids hugs because they come in and ask for a hug,” Barras said. “I’m going to do it every time.” 

Educators often spend their own money to buy supplies for students who either don’t have the means to buy them or don’t want to ask their parents for fear of being a burden.

Teachers are buying shoes, coats, hats and gloves in the winter. They buy school supplies, alarm clocks and tubs full of clothes all year. One retired Ontario teacher said she has spent upwards of $3,000 on books for her students.

The series:

Part 1 – Malheur County continues to have one of the worst rates of child poverty in Oregon, despite determined local efforts.

Part 2 – Children are living in substandard housing, as Malheur County’s shortage of homes remains challenging.

Part 3 – Getting enough food to feed children is no easy task for many Malheur County households.

Part 4 – Schools in Malheur County step in to serve children in need with more than an education.

Part 5 – Shortage of facilities and professionals leaves children’s mental health needs unmet.

Educators supply students with the basic means to survive, but also to keep kids out of trouble. 

A couple of years ago, Herren had one sixth grader whose brothers were deeply involved in a gang. They wanted him to join, too. The principal of Alameda paid for him to go to baseball practice after school – cleats, a bat, gloves, a baseball bag. Herren drove him to practice every night.

Educators do their best, but sometimes their best is not enough.

This year, Herren heard that the young boy now is “absolutely neck deep in gang activity.”

Another matter schools tackle is feeding children.

The rate of children facing “food insecurity” in Malheur County last year was about one in five kids, according to the Oregon Hunger Task Force. That means more than 1,487 children are going hungry.

“You probably wouldn’t talk to anybody in this building that doesn’t go home at night and have at least one if not a plethora of students that they lay awake at night and worry about,” said Theresa Meiwald, the principal of Vale Elementary School.

“Are they safe? Do they have a roof over their head? Do they have food to eat? We’re off school for four days this week as we have a holiday,” she continued. “What can I shove in his backpack to make sure that he’s got enough to eat before he comes back to school on Monday?” 

Because of community poverty levels, Nyssa, Ontario and Vale provide free lunch for every student. Nyssa provides free breakfast too.

Leaders in the Vale School District search for ways to help children from struggling families. They include, from left, Lisa Barras, counselor; Alisha McBride, superintendent; Jill Justus, district nurse; and Lisa Andersen, Vale Middle School principal (SUEJIN LIM/The Enterprise) Children of Poverty

“Teachers will take snacks and put them in backpacks because we’re on a four-day school week,” said Alisha McBride, the Vale School District superintendent. “We know children have food insecurity three days of the week on those three-day weekends. So they put food in backpacks.”

Summer can be challenging for students who don’t have access to meals when out of school.

The Vale district runs a summer meal program for ages 1 to 18.

 “So free breakfast and free lunch to help address food insecurities and make sure that our children have access to meals during the summer. But they also have to be in town,” McBride explained.

Some schools also have a backpack program to send hungry kids home with food.

“They would fill backpacks with finger foods and easy foods for kids,” said Herren, the Alameda teacher. “They would run to get their backpack on Friday nights knowing that they could take it home.”

Although the kids at Alameda loved the backpack program, it was discontinued when the volunteer who headed it for a church left.

Herren said that because her students face such struggles, she’s stopped assigning homework.

“They’re living in a car, they [don’t] have a pencil, right? They left it somewhere. They left it in between grandma’s house and dad’s house because they’re being strung out in different places. It just sets them up for failure and makes them feel awful,” Herren said.

After school is a vulnerable time.

There are currently no after-school programs in Vale due to lack of funding, so children can go home to unsupervised environments. McBride said the district is seeking grants to add such programming.

Even small enrichments like library books can be hard to come by for students. Kids can’t take out books if their parents don’t have a state-issued ID card.

Sharon Katz is a volunteer in an Ontario second-grade classroom – the only volunteer for the entire school.

“There were three kids who just sat in the classroom while the other kids went to the bookmobile because they couldn’t take out books,” Katz recalled.

Instead of being excited about summer, students are stressed and anxious over losing the structure of school, as well as access to meals. Some kids can’t take advantage of some summer activities meant to engage students.

“I have one that’s upset because summer’s coming,” McBride said before school ended last month. “There’s a bucket list in the hall. There’s 100 things to do over summer. He was reading through it, and he was upset. He goes, ‘We can’t afford any of these things.’”

The teachers collaborated with the parents to buy him a pool pass for the summer – somewhere fun to go. For the past two years, the Vale school district offered a summer enrichment program for elementary and middle school kids. But that won’t happen this year because there is no money to pay for it.

For parents of young kids, child care is scarce in Malheur County, adding another pressure on the school system to help.

“If you want to find a home-based center, it’s almost next to impossible,” said Rebecca Tollotson, a single mother.

As an employee at the Malheur County Child Development Center, Tollotson received much appreciated child care for her 5-year-old daughter. Then, Tollotson missed the chance to renew her slot.

“I had no child care and I had nowhere to work so I was left high and dry,” she said.

After years of actively searching for help, Tollotson was connected with the Treasure Valley Children’s Relief Nursery. After enduring childhood trauma, her daughter now attends speech and behavioral therapy twice a week.

Tollotson said it is difficult to find places that will help. She would like to see more fliers and advertisements posted explaining what resources are available. 

Children also notice that many of the important adults in their lives do not look like them, authorities said.

In Malheur County, Latino people make up 35% of the population – about 10,800 people. But according to the Oregon Department of Education, up to 98% of teachers are white while over two-thirds of the student population are people of color. In Nyssa and Ontario schools, about one out of three students are Latino.

“Many times, and I know early on in my career, I would often hear students say, ‘Well, but there aren’t any Hispanic teachers that look like me.’” said Xochi Fuhriman-Ebert, an English language director in the Ontario School District.

There are few Spanish speakers for students – and the children observe that the people who do look like them are cooks, custodians or field workers. 

“That becomes what they think they can accomplish. They don’t think that they can attain more. I don’t see Latino principals. I don’t see a lot of Latino teachers,” Fuhriman-Ebert said.

VIDEO: Educators discuss challenges

Educators provide students housing and worry if they have a place to sleep for the night. 

“I have driven by Walmart parking lots at night to see if a family is there,” said Huddleston, the Alameda principal.

She tries to connect students she suspects need housing to district liaisons who can provide some support.

“We’ve checked in daily with families to see where they plan on staying that night. We’ve had families before where we have children in the building, but we know that there’s younger siblings, like infants in the car, that we have worried about in the winter months because we know that they’re parking in a space at Walmart for the night,” she said.

Hailee Coup was until recently a 19-year-old senior at Ontario High School. She lived with her dad until she was 15, then with her grandmother, then she moved to North Dakota, before landing back in Malheur County in 2019. She had nowhere to go and moved constantly between her uncle and grandmother.

Eventually, Coup rented a room and enrolled for food stamps through the state Department of Human Services.

Rocio Trujillo and Levi Anderson of the Oregon Department of Human Services help families struggling with food, child care and other issues at the Ontario office. (ANDIE KALINOWSKI/The Enterprise) Children of Poverty

She said transportation to school was her biggest challenge. But she received support from her teachers and counselors to make it work. Although it was difficult to keep up, she will be attending Eastern Oregon University to study child psychology.

She strives to work with foster kids because she was one herself. She wants the kids to know their circumstance is not their fault.

Some educators believe that poverty in Malheur County is more generational than situational. 

“I really have a feeling that they see their grandparents or their parents get along okay with poverty,” Herren said. “I know we’ve got several families here in our district that live together. They’re sharing costs of a single-wide trailer with 15 people in it, everybody can drive Navigators or brand new Explorers.

“And it sounds awful, but I really think that they’re okay with that. They can have iPhones. I really think that the mentality that we’ve created around poverty and situational poverty has created a culture that thinks it’s okay.” 

Still, educators are overwhelmed.

“They’re burning out teachers,” said an Ontario teacher who is retiring. “People are thinking, ‘For this kind of pay, why am I doing this?’ That’s what I’m thinking. It’s too much. It’s overwhelming. I go home with it.”

Educators need more help. They need more money, resources, people and time. 

“Time is important,” Fuhriman-Ebert, said. “There’s so many things that teachers are expected to do in school to prepare to make systems happen so we can have the school environment that we have. And sometimes it’s that time. I’m fortunate that I have a small class and if a student needs time, we’ve got time. Let’s talk about it. But you have other teachers who may have 30 kids in the classroom and divy up the time that they have an hour. And by those 30 kids, you’ve just reduced it to two seconds per child.”

The weight of supporting these children in every way is on their shoulders.

“We call this sanctuary,” Herren said, “so they know that nothing in these four walls will ever hurt them. They have some peace here.” 

Reporters Christina Chkarboul, Suejin Lim, Shane Dimapanat and Venice Tang contributed reporting with supervision provided by Rebecca Haggerty and Judy Muller of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.


Join the conversation. How can the community improve life for children in impoverished circumstances? Who should take the lead on this issue? Send an email to Publisher Les Zaitz: [email protected].

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