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High praise for school’s family aid

Saranac Lake school community says family advocate is big help in pandemic

SARANAC LAKE — A program matching students and families in the Saranac Lake Central School District with assistance to work through poverty, health issues or homelessness has been a blessing for dozens of families during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to school administrators, program organizers and families receiving aid.

In 2019, a collaboration between the Saranac Lake Central School District and Community Connections of Franklin County embedded CCFC Family Support Advocate Rachel Stender in the district to help families with anything from getting assistance to making monthly payments to filing paperwork for health insurance.

This is part of the district’s Community School program, which seeks to provide everyday and emergency aid to families to support their kids’ success in school.

When staff at the school recognize a need in a student or their family, they call Stender, who has an office in the district.

CCFC has run this sort of program for the past 15 years in Malone, expanded to Saranac Lake two years ago and recently began a program in the Chateaugay school district.

CCFC Executive Director Lee Rivers said the Saranac Lake program saw increased use in 2020 for two reasons: the program gaining steam and the pandemic causing more need.

For families struggling with poverty, health care or homelessness, the past year of the coronavirus has exacerbated many of these stresses, or introduced new families to them as the pandemic has disrupted school and work life.

“We do know because of the pandemic there were more families that need (aid),” Rivers said.

He said Stender has helped around 50 families in various ways in the past year.

At a December Board of Education meeting, the Saranac Lake Central School District’s Community School liaison Erica Bezio told the board about Stender’s work and the dozens of new families she had helped in the first half of the school year.

Food insecurity was the most common aid, with 21 families struggling to put food on the table. Then came utilities and housing — the monthly bills.

A handful got help with health insurance, health literacy and behavioral health referrals — guidance through the health care system. Three families needed immunizations to attend school, and one family did not speak any English.

A few families used Stender’s services to get treatment for alcohol and substance abuse, or to help with probation, drug court and family court.

“I wanted to hug her”

“It’s kind of hard living in Saranac Lake,” said Kalina Callaghan, a mother of two who has in recent years experienced homelessness, unemployment and, like everyone, the COVID-19 pandemic.

She is grateful for the aid Stender provided her family — her husband Jason and two children: Selena, 8, and Letty, 5. Selena is attending elementary school remotely in the Saranac Lake Central School District.

Last spring, Kalina lost her job as a private cleaner because of COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, the number of clients her employer had dropped dramatically, and she was out of a job.

Her husband Jason is a handyman and mechanic who works on cars and home projects.

It was months after the pandemic lockdown began before her unemployment kicked in, Kalina said. All the while, bills were piling up.

Stender stepped in and helped out with getting Kalina registered to receive food stamps and navigating unemployment.

“Rachel is very cool, calm, collected,” Kalina said. “She knows what she is doing. I think Rachel is the best.”

Kalina said the extra $600 of unemployment pay per week the federal CARES Act established last year was helpful, but when it ran out in July and was not renewed, the struggle returned.

She said if that extra unemployment is renewed, it would help her out a lot.

Kalina said Stender was helping her family even before she became the Saranac Lake school district’s family support advocate in 2019. Before that, Stender was the office manager for Volunteers of America’s Adirondack Apartments complex on Lake Street and helped Kalina’s family get into a three-bedroom unit there while they struggled to find housing.

“We were homeless, pretty much,” Kalina said. “We lived with (Jason’s) mother for about three or four months in her one-bedroom apartment.”

She said cramming that many people into such as small space was tense and difficult.

At the time, she said she fell just shy of qualifying for housing at the VOA apartments. Stender wrote her a letter of recommendation and got an exception for them to move into the apartment.

“The kids were excited,” Kalina said. “They each had their own room. We actually had a living room. … We couldn’t believe it was happening.”

The Callaghans moved to Bloomingdale in October 2020 when they were given a trailer they could own at a trailer park there. Stender brought out clothes, toys and food for the kids to help with the move.

“I wanted to hug her, but you know, you can’t,” Kalina said.

Kalina said Stender has gone “out of her way” to help her family, personally bringing gifts for the kids through Holiday Helpers in the last two years.

“If Rachel wasn’t doing what she was doing, and going above and beyond her job, everyone would be lost,” Kalina said. “That’s my opinion.”

Kalina said she’s worked with many social service programs and workers, but that Stender has been the most helpful.

“I’ve been through a rough life,” Kalina said. “I wish I met Rachel sooner.”

How it works

Stender said she is not allowed to speak to news reporters; Rivers spoke for the CCFC instead.

He said the organization helps with financial aid given directly to families and helps navigate other aid programs.

“We have very limited financials that we’re able to assist families with,” Rivers said. “If we’re not able to, because of the great partnerships that we build, we’re able to refer them to another resource.”

Saranac Lake Central School District Superintendent Diane Fox said it is one thing to give someone a number to call for help and another to walk with them through the process.

Rivers said sometimes CCFC can split costs with other programs to help. Funding depends on what grants are available.

“I’m continuously applying for grants,” Rivers said.

Rivers personally knows about the negative impacts a tough financial situation can have on children.

“I grew up poor in Malone. I’m not ashamed to say what my life was like,” he said. “So I realize what the parents and the kids are going through.”

It is hard to concentrate at school when you’re coming from a cold house or showing up to classes hungry, he said.

“I fully understand the importance of families … having that roof over their head, the basics in life — how important that is to their emotional well-being and their physical well-being,” he said.

Rivers’ job is to help families and kids who are in situations he once experienced, giving them the resources to get to a better place. He said he finds it extremely fulfilling.

“I’ve been doing this for nine years now, and I will tell you that it’s always very real to be able to say, ‘A family’s going to stay in their place. They’re not going to be homeless,'” Rivers said. “It’s as touching to me still today as it was when I started working nine years ago.

“It’s a sigh of relief … and then you’re already on to the next one.”

A rare success

Until recent years, Fox there were not many consistent assistance programs for families in her district, which straddles county lines.

“We find ourselves in an interesting spot here in Saranac Lake,” Fox said. “We are one hour from any county seat.”

Students in the district may live in Franklin, Essex or Clinton counties, she said, far from Malone, Elizabethtown and Plattsburgh, where the hubs of county organizations sit.

Having someone embedded in the school who understands the community and is available when needed means families are able to get resources much sooner, she said.

Fox said Saranac Lake school staff were initially skeptical of accepting CCFC’s help when Bezio invited Rivers to speak with them.

“There have been times in the past, before my time here, when there’s been discussion about community organizations embedding someone in the district,” Fox said. “When Community Connections and Lee came and spoke to the group, there was sort of a level of … the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ line, ‘I’ve been burnt by you before.’ There was sort of a feeling by the staff members who had been around for a while, like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve been given this promise before.’

“What Lee and his organization has been able to provide has really made converts out of all of us because it’s been consistent and high-quality, and just so good for our kids and our families,” Fox said. “(The district) has truly become a hub of help for families who might otherwise not be connected.”

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