Prince of Peace parishioner fosters community relationships with the Olathe School District

From left, Heather Schoonover and Pam Wolfe work together to train people as part of the Volunteers Serving Schools program within the Olathe School District. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LAURIE BOLLIG

by Laurie Bollig
Special to The Leaven

Olathe — With the exception of a few years, Prince of Peace parishioner Heather Schoonover has lived here her entire life.

“I feel like an Old Settler at times,” the Olathe South High School graduate joked.

Since 2006, Schoonover has worked in the Olathe School District’s community development department. She is adept at matching an army of volunteers with several of the district’s key programs, including the Adopt-A-School program, Volunteers Serving Schools and the McKinney-Vento “students in transition” program.

“You have to share the story,” explained Schoonover. “In a school district, you could have a student driving a very nice car to school and, in the same classroom, there could be a student who might not know where they’re going to be tonight.

“I think some people don’t understand that.”

Approximately 28 percent of the student population in the Olathe district receives free or reduced lunches through federal programs. By the end of the 2016-17 school year, at least 400 students will have been identified as homeless.

Teachers, counselors, nurses and even lunchroom workers help Schoonover identify students in need. And then her staff and partners kick into gear.

“We connect the dots, making sure . . . that they have free breakfast and lunch, [and] making sure they have assistance with transportation to and from school, because sometimes the families may not have a car.”

She and her staff could not do what they do without assistance from civic organizations, faith-based groups and businesses in her hometown. These organizations have embraced the school district and the role they can play in filling gaps wherever they occur.

Whether it’s the local Rotary Club, a Lions Club, a social service agency or a church, Schoonover is always listening to her partners.

“You have to learn what their bandwidth is and what their passion is because in true partnerships, it’s only going to be beneficial if it’s win-win for both.”

It would be difficult to keep a lot of projects going without volunteers. Schoonover said a perfect example of community involvement — and a program that likely wouldn’t exist without it — is the weekend backsnack project, which assures more than 1,000 children leave school on Fridays with food to sustain them.

“We do not have funding nor do we have the staffing to implement a project like that. So for students who are food insecure in the home — although we are providing the free breakfast and lunch during the school day — they are not going to succeed in the classroom without a project like that.”

Prince of Peace Parish has stepped up to provide a major service to the district.

“The parish as a whole during July has done a gift card drive to bring hope and dignity to these students in transition,” Schoonover said. “Those parish members may never see that student who is struggling, but what they are giving them is a gift so they can get a brand-new outfit for pictures on the first day of school.”

Students from St. Thomas Aquinas in Overland Park and St. James Academy in Lenexa have organized activities that directly benefit students in Olathe. Catholic Charities is a key resource Schoonover works with when parents need transitional housing, food or other basic necessities.

“It’s like you toss a stone, and it’s a ripple effect that people across the community are helping each other,” she said.

Involving faith-based organizations in a public school district was necessary, according to Dr. Erin Dugan, assistant superintendent for Olathe Public Schools.

“Faith-based organizations are important in this community — no one’s blinked an eye. They are part of a larger initiative that says that public schools are going to need a lot of community partners to take care of the whole child. We no longer can do it alone,” Dugan said.

Schoonover, a single mother of three children, says faith is important in her line of work.

“In any job you have to have strong faith,” she said. “There are some days you feel like you hit a home run and you are able to connect on a good resource for a school or a student, but there are days that I do take it home.

“Truly, it is faith. But that other thing is a strong blessing that our partners — [who] when you share a need — some things just fall into place.”

Schoonover recalled a recent situation in which a child in the district needed a bed.

“When an email goes out and it’s taken care of in 24 hours, it’s like you see little miracles happening within your community,” she said.

To know Schoonover is to know a person filled with compassion. To see her at work is to see that compassion play out daily, serving the needs of Olathe’s students by connecting them with people and resources throughout the community who can help them achieve a successful future.

Dugan said Schoonover is one of the rock stars behind the district’s highly successful programs.

“Heather is someone that speaks from her heart,” said Dugan. “She makes the stories real because they are real, and then she seamlessly asks for what she needs.

“Heather also does a really nice job of talking about what’s unique about our Olathe community and how we take care of each other,” Dugan concluded. “The sense of community is probably what you pick up from her first. She loves it here.”

 

If you are interested in a partnership or volunteer opportunity with the Olathe School District, call (913) 780-8233.

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