A new nonprofit program called Head to Toe has been launched to help Anne Arundel County’s children. The program is an extension of existing programs that have been started in other areas and is run by the nonprofit HOPE for All (He Opens Pathways for All).
Many children struggle in school for various reasons; some may be bullied, others may have issues with self-esteem, but still others miss school simply because they do not have sufficient clothing. This program is working to eradicate this throughout the county.
The way the program is set up allows school officials and/or social workers to submit a referral to the nonprofit agency. They can then get in touch with the children to provide clothing to them.
“Although we have been clothing kids, we’re really making an emphasis on it now,” HOPE founder Leo Zerhusen said. “Just in the school system alone this year, we’ve helped 553 kids. Forty-five percent of kids in Anne Arundel County live below poverty level.
With the population in Anne Arundel skyrocketing, there is reason for concern. Over the last 15 years, the population has grown by about 10%, now standing at more than 500,000 residents. However, HOPE estimates that they will be able to help 2,500 to 5,000 kids this year.
“It has been the observation of one principal that the majority of students living in poverty experience academic challenges,” HOPE volunteer Connie Cooper said. “It’s hard to grow academically without parent involvement.”
She also added, “Head to Toe allows schools to reach out to families, and show them that they care about them and the challenges that they are facing. The more connected the students and parents feel toward their school, the better the students perform.”
Annapolis, though it is often seen as a well-off area, is actually one of the neediest, Zerhausen said. HOPE for All even sees requests from areas such as Severna Park and Davidsonville, which are traditionally very affluent areas.
“You hate to think of painting a picture of doom — that’s not exactly the right word, but the world is kind of dark out there right now,” he said. “One of the biggest questions we get asked is, ‘why do you do this?’ Anne Arundel County is so wealthy — people don’t realize what’s happening and what’s going on.”
He points out that one of their biggest obstacles is getting politicians to acknowledge and address the issues facing the county. Many feel that it simply isn’t their fight to fight.
In fact, the county is holding a vote soon that will determine whether or not funding will be cut for organizations like HOPE.
“There’s a little window of hope that the grants won’t be cut,” Zerhusen said. “They say it’s a burden on the taxpayer, but if you close down these nonprofits, somebody’s going to be paying for it.”
In the past, HOPE has had stockpiles of clothing in warehouses, but they are now beginning to see their stock decrease.
“Our goal is to bring awareness to the need for clothing by all children from infant to 16,” he said.
He added that HOPE does not only focus on clothing for school children. They also help needy families struggling to obtain materials such as furniture and housewares.
“If we had the manpower and funding, we probably would do — at the current rate — over 300 families this year,” Zerhusen said.
In a typical year, the nonprofit helps 200 families get the material items they lack.
“In the month of October, HOPE donated $45,000 worth of clothing, furniture, linens, household and school supplies,” Zerhusen said. “That’s way undervalued. For reporting purposes, we value items at $3 each. But a winter coat? Shoes? Jeans? We could sometimes even quadruple that number to see what’s happening and what’s going out into the community.”
Those who are able are encouraged to donate. Zerhusen notes that they always need basics such as clothing and household items. Their website has a list of needed items.
Employment is hard to come by across the nation, but there are currently only job listings for about 40 positions in Anne Arundel. Though they range from food service to managerial work to healthcare, the positions open are simply not enough to drag residents from poverty quite yet.