The fight against homelessness has gotten personal in Stow and Munroe Falls.

A new partnership of city, school and community members has been forged to remind those who don’t have a place to call home right now that they’re part of a larger family — a community which cares.

"We have 27 homeless students this year and (had) 26 last year … which is absolutely shocking when you think about it," Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools Superintendent Tom Bratten says. "It doesn’t sound like a lot when you’re talking about 5,200 kids, but one is too many ... "

Bobbi Angely, a counselor at Kimpton Middle School, says she’s worked directly with several families impacted by homelessness. Sometimes younger students will confide the situation. Other times, an observant teacher may stop in and say, ‘I’m worried about so-and-so. Their hair is never brushed or they don’t seem to have a change of clothes.’"

The face of homelessness is changing, Angely reports, explaining people can be invisibly homeless — moving in with grandparents or bunking with neighbors — instead of heading to the traditional haven, shelters. "They (kids) feel embarrassed, ashamed … so we try to take care of all of the basics to the best of our ability to give them the best chance of coming here to get an education," she says. Describing school as perhaps the only constant in a homeless youngster’s life, Angely says staff frequently reach into their own wallets to support such families. Kimpton administrators and counselors brought the issue to the attention of the school’s PTSA president, who then took it to the mayor.

Mayor John Pribonic says he wants to raise awareness of the resources available and the willingness of residents to extend a hand when a family is experiencing what was once unthinkable — homelessness. To that end, the cities of Stow and Munroe Falls have joined with representatives of the school district and a volunteer group with a proven track record to reinforce a spirit of community.

"We were notified back in December … that we had somewhat of a homeless issue here in our communities,"  Pribonic said. "I know it’s very shocking. We don’t picture Stow and Munroe Falls that way …

"We see evidence of homelessness at the library on a regular basis." according to Ann Malthaner, who’s the head of marketing and public relations at the Stow-Munroe Falls Public Library. "Nobody likes to advertise they are homeless, but from the questions we get at the Information Desk, we can only assume this is the case." Some patrons spend the entire day at the library, Malthaner says, where they get a daytime roof over their head, free coffee, computers and internet. She says the library staff are trained to recognize and "work compassionately with homeless individuals."

Struggling families are no surprise to members of the Stow-Munroe Falls Neighborhood Improvement & Community Enrichment Committee. SMF NICE surfaced around Thanksgiving when the group raised $10,181 in under a week to pay off accrued lunch debt.

"NICE formed specifically to tackle the lunch debt in SMF Schools, and grew quickly beyond that scope as that campaign uncovered unmet needs in the community," according to Ginger Bakos, vice president of communications for SMF NICE.  "… Before the campaign had ended, each of us individually began being contacted by local residents about individual and collective needs in the community. It would be hard to quantify how many times we've been asked for help or contacted by everyone from local citizens to school board members to city officials. … What the community needed was a conduit between those in need and resources — NICE has worked to continue to be that conduit."

Hearing time and time again how local teachers are reaching into their own pockets to pay for things struggling families, SMF NICE member Antoinette East-Jenkins says another idea was born: to create a fund to offset such needs. With the Stow-Munroe Falls Board of Education president and vice president donating a month of their school board salaries, the SMF CARES fund was established. "It will provide food and clothing and hygiene products and laundry money and those sorts of things for families in our community," says Kimpton PTSA President Tracy Starnes.

Integrity Auto Care in Stow also donates up to 10 percent of service appointments made online to SMF CARES.  

Saying homelessness "is not a crisis" in Stow, the mayor says he still believes how the community responds to instances of it will define the character of its residents. "If we don’t do it, who will?," he asks. According to Pribonic, he’s sure there’s momentum to build upon the success of the Bulldog Bags program.That non-profit program ensures students in the Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools who qualify for free or reduced meals get groceries to help their families through the weekend. During the 2018-19 school year, approximately 600 Bulldog Bags are handed out twice a month to youngsters ranging from kindergarten through the ninth grade.

"Initially we didn’t know there was a need for Bulldog Bags but once the need was known, look how the community responded," the mayor says.  

Because homelessness can foster hopelessness, SMF CARES has produced a resource directory listing options for food, clothing, medical and counseling, temporary housing and shelter and veteran assistance options. Copies of the directory will be distributed in May through the water bills mailed to Stow and Munroe Falls residents and available at both city halls. An online version is available on the city websites and the SMF NICE Facebook page.

How You Can Help

From April 15 through April 26, a "Drop Your Drawers" collection is being conducted to stock school clothing closets, clinics and  Donations of new, unopened packages of underwear in small, youth and teen sizes and disposable feminine hygiene products may be dropped off at Stow City Hall, 3760 Darrow Road; Munroe Falls City Hall, 43 Munroe Falls Ave.; the Stow Safety Building, 3800 Darrow Road; or the Akron General Health and Wellness Center, 4300 Allen Road in Stow. For those who’d prefer to make a monetary donation, checks made payable to the Stow-Munroe Falls Community Foundation with SMF NICE in the memo line may be mailed to the SMF Community Foundation, P.O. Box 2244, Stow 44224.

"Sometimes life just stinks for some parents, (with) bad breaks and things like that," Bratten adds, " ... It doesn’t mean they don’t love their kids — it just means they need a helping hand …"

"My motto is: Kids are worth whatever it takes," Angely says. "That’s what we’re trying to demonstrate. Circumstances may be against you right now but we are here for you. We care. "

Reporter Ellin Walsh can be reached at 330-541-9419, ewalsh@recordpub.com or @EllinWalsh_RPC.