Brighter Days for All

Charlotte Johnson, Van Buren R-1 schools social worker, was hired by Whole Kids Outreach, with funding from a grant from the Midwest Early Recovery Fund, to support children and families affected by the 2017 floods in Van Buren, Missouri. Below Charlotte shares a story about helping a family find a safe and secure home.

First grade is hard! It’s even harder when you are living in a trailer home that was flooded in a storm that devastated your community, causing holes in the walls and floors where rodents come in. Add to that, not understanding why your dad left or why mom is stressed all the time – it all makes concentrating at school that much more difficult. This was the situation of a young boy living in our district.

The elementary counselor began working with the child. He would not read for his teacher. His behavior was aggressive. And, he was caught eating from the trash can. The counselor was being pulled to the classroom several times a week because of his behavior or she was pulling him from the playground because he was being aggressive toward other children. His classroom teacher had pages of documentation on this child because he was a constant disruption to her class.

When the mother was called in for a conference with the principal, he learned of the horrible living conditions and referred this family to me.

I immediately visited the home and met the mother. She was nervous when I arrived because she has a rocky past with the Division of Family Services. I assured her I was there to offer support, not to drive a wedge in the family. Mom explained to me that her ex-husband moved the family there and then left. She was already involved with another man who lived in the home. He was working in the log woods, but his check barely paid the bills or put food on the table. She explained the two of them often went hungry so there was food for the children. The home smelled of mold, there was a visible slope of the kitchen floor and holes in the walls where mold was growing. She showed me the bedroom where the children slept. There was a mattress on the floor and toys scattered all around. A piece of plywood under the window covered a hole in the wall. There was mold everywhere. I commented on the clothes that were hanging outside. She told me they did not have a washer and dryer and couldn’t afford laundry detergent. She would put the clothes in the tub, fill the tub with water and let the two children stomp the clothes in an attempt to clean them. The children thought this was fun!

I explained to her that the home was unfit to live in, especially for children. She became upset and started to cry. She knew it was unfit but did not have the means to get out. She asked me if I was going to hotline her. I asked how willing she was to change the situation. Would she move if I could help her? She replied, “I would move right now if I had a place to go.” I told her I would bring her case to the Long Term Recovery Meeting  (LTRC) later that day and would be in touch.

The LTRC did not hesitate to help this family after I presented them with the situation. We immediately developed a plan to get this family to better housing. After the meeting, I gathered food and boxes then visited the family again. I informed them to start preparing to move, if needed we would place them in a motel until a house could be located to rent. The parents began to cry out of joy.

The following day I visited with Robyn at Catholic Charities and we began to call landlords she had worked with in the past. We were able to find a trailer in town that had just become available. We took a tour with the landlord and secured that home for the family. It was a matter of days before the family stayed their first night in their new home. Catholic Charities still works with this family.

What a difference it makes in a student’s school experience when they have a warm home and clean clothes to wear, plus mom is working and a little less stressed!

The young boy still hugs me and thanks me for his home and a real bed. Now he loves school! The elementary counselor is not called to visit this child due to behavior. He gets to keep his playground time. And his teacher reports he is probably the smartest kid in her class. His math skills are excellent, and he is reading on a second-grade level!

In my work as a social worker, sometimes the outcomes aren’t as successful. Children and adults in our community are still facing the effects of massive flooding more than eighteen months ago. The CDP Early Recovery Fund has played an important role in helping to get back on our feet, including the funding of my position to help students cope. Many of them take on adult responsibilities – worrying about money or insurance. And the little ones worry when it rains that the floods will come again. I am grateful to Nancy and to CDP for understanding the needs of children here in Van Buren. We’re working toward brighter days for all.