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Whidbey's Holiday House supports homeless kids

Volunteers Donna Keeler, left, and Mimi Johnson help out at the 2009 Holiday House put on by the Readiness to Learn Foundation. The House allows families in need to pick out gifts. - Courtesy of Vivian Rogers Decker
Volunteers Donna Keeler, left, and Mimi Johnson help out at the 2009 Holiday House put on by the Readiness to Learn Foundation. The House allows families in need to pick out gifts.
— image credit: Courtesy of Vivian Rogers Decker

There is no institution on this island where a lone child can go to get off the streets.

There is no easy way to tell a little girl that although she’s been good this year, Santa will be skipping her stocking on Christmas Eve.

There is no simple answer when the decision between providing heat or food for a child must be made.

Whidbey is home to many privileged households, small town charm and breathtaking views. So some people are taken aback when they hear that located here, in this modern-day Mayberry, there are more than 180 homeless kids. Many are couch surfing, some are taking residence in cheap motels and others are in the process of being sent off island to cities that can better provide for their needs.

In 2001, legislation called the McKinney Vento Act was reauthorized. In short, the act requires that school districts sufficiently provide for their homeless students’ needs. Nancy Bailey serves as a McKinney Vento Act liaison for the Oak Harbor School District and also works as a coordinator for the Readiness to Learn Foundation, an organization that raises money for supplies and other basic resources for children and families in need.

Currently Bailey is working with 106 students and their families in Oak Harbor, and she said on average she gets about two new children referred to her daily. Bailey acts as an advocate for students. She helps displaced families form plans to pay their bills and helps them make connections at local food banks and other service organizations, sets up transportation for students who were kicked out of homes near their neighborhood schools and provides clothing vouchers and learning supplies to students when possible.

“School may be the only place a student gets heat, gets to shower, gets free breakfast or free lunch,” Bailey said. “Schools have a lot of resources.”

Vivian Rogers, who works as the homeless liaison for the Coupeville School District, said she’s talking to many families right now who are in danger of losing their homes because they can’t afford rental payments in addition to grocery and electric bills.

“It’s not choices between ‘Do I go out to eat or do I pay the phone bill?’” Rogers said. “Those are really superficial choices. It’s choices between ‘Do I pay my power bill or do I keep a roof over my head?’”

Homeless families on Whidbey have it especially hard because there are few housing options available. While there are a couple of shelters that take families, Marjie’s House, the island’s largest facility, will not take males over the age of 12, so often children are separated from their families and forced to move to shelters in Anacortes, Mount Vernon or Everett.

“There’s no men’s shelter or youth shelter on the island,” Bailey said. “It’s incredibly disruptive.”

Coming up next month, Bailey and Rogers along with their South Whidbey partners Ann Johnson and Lori Cavender, will be putting together a Holiday House to help alleviate some of the stress for families in transition.

The Holiday House will be filled with donated gifts from individuals and organizations and will allow parents to pick out presents for their children.

Rogers said many parents feel the need to save face in front of their kids and end up buying gifts they can’t really afford. Then after the holidays in January, they’re struggling to find money to survive.

“The Holiday House is really a prevention program,” Rogers said. “It’s a way for families to meet that need and still pay bills.”

At the Holiday House, parents will be able to “shop” for their kids and will be provided with wrapping supplies and treats.

“It’s a store environment and it gets to be a personal experience,” Johnson said. “It is the true sense of the season.”

The store is sponsored by the Readiness to Learn Foundation and the Toys for Tots program. This week boxes will be placed in local stores and churches for gift donations, and the women are encouraging residents to think about picking up some donations during their Black Friday shopping sprees.

Monetary donations for supplies are also accepted and can be sent to Holiday House, P.O. Box 346, Langley, WA 98260.

To find out about volunteer opportunities call 221-6808 ext. 4322.

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