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Breaking the Cycle of Poverty for Homeless Students

Jennifer Friend is the CEO of Project Hope Alliance, a nonprofit with a mission to “end the cycle of homelessness, one child at a time.” Vanessa Ryan is a Philanthropic Partnership Director with MIND Research Institute.  The two organizations are collaborating this holiday season to share the gift of ST Math with homeless children living in Orange County, California.

Vanessa Ryan: Tell us about Project Hope Alliance.

Jennifer Friend: Project Hope Alliance is committed to ending homelessness by moving families into permanent housing, but more importantly, our eye is laser-focused on utilizing education as a transformative tool so that the children we serve today will be the last in their family to be homeless.  A child can be evicted from a home but no one can evict a child from their education. No matter what happens in their life, their education will always be with them.  They can’t unlearn it.

VR: I think that because education here in the states is so widely accessible, we tend to take it for granted.

JF:  We take for granted the accessibility of education, but we can also be blind to the inaccessibility of education for some children in our own community.  If you don’t have a way to get to school, or if your parents are moving back and forth over county lines to keep a roof over their head, the child really doesn’t have a choice but to go where the parents go.  And sometimes the parents don’t have a choice but to bring the kids with them. 

VR: Tough choices.

JF: 32,000 children in Orange County are going in and out of schools and in and out of their educational experience.  We created Bright Start so the curriculum can go with the child when the child can’t get to school - whether they are sleeping on a couch in San Bernardino County or in a motel in Costa Mesa, that child can access their schoolwork so they don’t fall two full school years behind, which is on average how far behind their peers homeless children are in our county.

VR: Tell us how it’s going to work.

JF: So, thanks to Disney, we now have 26 Chromebooks loaded with a variety of educational software and built in Wi-Fi – with Bright Start, whether the child happens to be living out of a car, park or motel, the curriculum is always accessible 24/7 to the child. 

VR: So empowering.

JF: And there are built in safeguards to know if child is or is not engaged, and baseline assessments and ongoing testing – and on top of that each child has a mentor.  The mentor meets with the child for at least two hours a week to connect and listen and remind them that their lives are unique and they have invaluable things to give to our community.

VR:  And a story to tell.

JF: Yes.

VR: So there’s academic oversight, emotional support, love and care.

JF: Absolutely. Because shame is a big byproduct of homelessness for children and that’s something I know personally.

VR: Tell me about that.

JF: A few years back I heard about Project Hope Alliance so I went to a board meeting, just to check it out.  While I was there, I shared publically for the first time that I had been homeless as a child off and on from 7th grade through high school, living in different motels and with other families.

VR: Here in Orange County.

JF: Yes.  My dad was an entrepreneur and there were times when we didn’t have money for rent.  I got to the place as an adult where I realized I had a story to tell and the reason was to be the voice for children who don’t believe they have one right now.

VR: I love that.

 JF:  So my story is no longer mine but the story of the kids that we serve.

JF: I first fell in love with JiJi when my daughter did, in kindergarten.  I’ve watched it create a real love of math and eliminate a lot of obstacles and now I have a son who is in love with a little penguin too.  It really is an incredible tool to instill passion and true joy for learning math but also to eliminate a lot of barriers. VR: Do you remember when I first approached you and told you I was with MIND and ST Math and you said “JiJi math!” I was so happy to hear that you already loved JiJi.

VR:  I hate barriers, especially to education or upward mobility.  One of my favorite quotes from Jaime Escalante in “Stand and Deliver” is when he says that “math is the great equalizer.”

JF: Language is also big barrier in a lot of classrooms,  and for some of our families.  One of the reasons we’re so excited about this partnership with MIND is it will allow our parents to participate, in some cases for the first time.

VR: Tell me how you see JiJi working to support the kids of Project Hope.

JF: To be really honest with you, the way this penguin can support our kids is endless.  If you look at the data, math and science are the two areas where homeless children struggle the most, and the reason for that, at least in my experience, is if you don’t have the ability to have the quiet space to study math, and you don’t have continuity in your exposure to mathematics, you fall behind much more quickly than you do in English or history.

VR:  That’s a good point.  The building blocks in math are substantial.  If you miss one you can really struggle to advance to the next level.  Whereas in language arts, you can sometimes go around those obstacles just by context and figure it out.

JF:  Absolutely.  And so the curriculum becomes inaccessible to our kids.  They get frustrated because they don’t know what they missed when they were in San Bernardino sleeping on their aunt’s couch.  JiJi will help eliminate that.

VR:  And Bright Start, so empowering.

JF: We think so.

VR: Let’s touch on your passion for collaboration. 

JF: So before coming to Project Hope Alliance I was a litigation partner at a law firm.  When I was in trial, I always wanted to make sure I gathered around me experts rather than generalists because my case was only as strong as what I could bring to it.  It’s the same thing with ending homelessness, isn’t it?  Project Hope Alliance doesn’t want to be the jack of all trades and the master of none – we want our kids to get the best of the best and that can only happen if we partner. 

VR: Collaboration.

JF: Exactly.  It’s not a good business model for us to be out there developing our own curriculum when there are partners like MIND that have done a proven, amazing job with tremendous results – we want to partner with those people already doing quality work in that space.

VR:  So to wrap this up, where do you see us going? What’s the future of JiJi and Project Hope Alliance?

JF: I see us going amazing places!  I have to tell you, when I joined Project Hope Alliance a couple years ago, we served one school with about 65 kids.  We’ve grown well over 700% since then and that is because of the generosity of this community and our commitment to partnership – I believe with this Bright Start program and the investment that Disney has made in this initial 26 child pilot, we’ll move toward eliminating the inaccessibility of education that is too often experienced by homeless children.

Thank you, Jennifer, and thank you Project Hope Alliance for over 25 years of commitment to our community.  We invite you to consider sharing the gift of JiJi with homeless children this holiday season, or to learn more, contact Vanessa Ryan: vryan@mindresearch.org.

help homelessness in orange county

Vanessa Ryan

About the Author

As a Social Impact Director at MIND Research Institute, Vanessa Ryan is a highly flexible creative thinker who enjoys utilizing collaboration and teamwork to leverage resources and maximize impact.

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