In the background of a Zoom class at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Gaithersburg, a teacher could see that one student’s room was empty and unfurnished.
The teacher alerted the school counselor, who checked in on the family’s situation and told the school’s Parent Teacher Association, which quickly mobilized.
Within about four hours, people had donated three beds and mattresses. Volunteers signed on to deliver them to the family, parent Lauren Laimon said. That night, the children had new beds to sleep on.
During the coronavirus pandemic, when many local families are strapped for resources, Montgomery County’s PTAs have expanded beyond their traditional roles to provide food, winter coats and holiday gifts to members of their school communities.
The beds came from the 4 Season GivingTree Program that Laimon founded.
“Our schools are really sort of the center of community. They’re the first and last line of community life in America,” said Gillian Huebner, vice president of the PTA at Albert Einstein High School near Kensington. “At a time like this, they’re really important organizing centers because we have communities that really care about one another.”
When the pandemic hit, Huebner knew students’ lives were thrown into flux. Some were working to provide food for their family or take care of younger siblings while transitioning to remote instruction.
Students should be able to focus solely on their academics, physical health and mental health, said Jess Berrellez, president of the PTSA at Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg.
That’s where the volunteer organizations come in. In the spring of 2020, the Einstein PTA raised about $6,000 in four days for grocery store gift cards, Huebner said.
The PTA shared its methodology, and more than 20 other schools in the county followed its lead. All told, the schools raised about $65,000 for gift cards to Target, Giant and Safeway.
As more people asked to join the efforts, organizers set up a countywide partnership between the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, Montgomery County Public Schools, and the MCPS Education Foundation to distribute grocery store gift cards to families in need. The campaign has raised $35,000 on top of the $65,000 some schools had already raised.
Taking inspiration from Einstein’s idea, the PTSA at A. Mario Loiederman Middle School in Silver Spring started a gift card drive last April. The school is a Title I school, meaning more than half of the students face food insecurity and qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
According to Andrea Creel, president of Loiederman’s PTSA, 500 to 600 families have asked for help during the pandemic. The school has about 950 students.
With advice from the Einstein PTA, the Loiederman PTSA was able to give $60 gift cards to about 600 families. Some families received three or four gift cards for $100 each.
The pandemic has shifted the traditional role of a PTSA towards addressing more significant challenges, Creel said. But she doesn’t see them ever going back to the way it was before the pandemic.
Berrellez said the PTSA is trying to specifically recruit and work with many of the families who receive the aid, making the effort more respectful and relevant.
There are barriers to joining a PTA, including language and time, Berrellez said.
“PTA isn’t about big, expensive events or fundraisers,” Berrellez said. “It’s really at a very basic level about students and parents and creating a sense of community and connection and advocacy.”
The Ridgeview PTSA has started meal distributions. Additionally, the American Diversity Group provided nonperishable items to distribute and the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation offered vegetarian meals.
The MCPS Division of Food and Nutrition Services provided fresh produce on a biweekly basis.
The Einstein PTA set up 11 sites for people to drop off food items for families. Around Christmas, people made holiday cards to go with the meals. For Thanksgiving, volunteers distributed 25 turkeys to families who didn’t have stable access to food.
“This is just another way of keeping the school in touch with families who are having a hard time,” Huebner said. “Letting them know that we’re still there, even though the building’s closed, the community’s not.”
Everett Davis — MCPS’ director of student, family, and school services — said the school system tries to understand and alleviate the root causes that prevent students from fully engaging in their schoolwork. The pandemic has exacerbated the barriers of unemployment, food insecurity and health concerns, Davis said. The challenges are most apparent among communities of color, he added.
Last March, MCPS began responding to increased need and setting up meal distribution sites.
But according to Berrellez, many of the families the Ridgeview PTSA worked with were in an “access desert,” referring to the difficulty of finding a local source of food.
For the West Side Drive community, the closest site was a 45-minute bus ride away. With the pandemic disrupting public transportation, many people struggled to get food.
Berrellez called the Division of Food and Nutrition Services, explained the issue, and asked for help. They began coordinating weekly food distributions in the neighborhood. PTSA volunteers helped continue the distribution for more than 26 weeks.
The Ridgeview PTSA also started a program called Bobcat Bikes — refurbishing bicycles and giving them to students. Data showed that not everyone could access the meal distribution, Berrellez said.
Though the PTSA’s meal distribution was closer to the community than MCPS’ was, it was still about a mile away. The bikes help students overcome transportation hurdles to access the meals. They also give students an opportunity for exercise and to meet up with friends outdoors.
PTSAs can’t provide continuous aid or handle all of the needs at the time, Berrellez said. But they can help lessen the burden on community organizations, flattening the curve of increased need during the coronavirus pandemic.
Another way the Ridgeview PTSA has tried to do this is by creating an emergency food pantry. The PTSA already ran a small store in the Ridgeview building. When the pandemic hit, they stocked it with food and other sundries, including hand sanitizer, shampoo, toothpaste and personal hygiene products.
Families, teachers and staff members fill out electronic forms to request food. The PTSA fills the request within a day and delivers the food to their home.
The Ridgeview PTSA has also launched the 4 Season GivingTree Program, which Laimon started. People can ask for new or gently used items that a donor can then provide.
For the holidays, particularly during the harsh pandemic year, donors “adopted” 50 families, providing gifts to surround the Christmas trees.
Many recipients sent anonymous notes of thanks.
“You have blessed us tremendously with all the presents and I will always be grateful to you,” one note read. “I cried out of joy and happiness. Honestly, I wasn’t able to get nothing for my children and felt guilty, but you have absolutely saved me and my children.”
Other schools have piloted other ideas to help families handle the winter weather. Last month, the Einstein PTA tried to get 50 new coats for students. Within 12 hours, volunteers bought 60 brand-new coats for families.
This winter, food insecurity has been particularly prevalent and there is limited access to school meals. The Ridgeview PTSA provided 150 families with boxes of food over winter break.
Volunteers passed out cloth face masks at the same time, Berrellez said. She hopes to set up a flu vaccine clinic at future food distribution events.
Though the coronavirus pandemic has devastated many families, Davis said it has also opened an opportunity for creativity and innovation in how people help.
“It takes a village to raise our children today,” Davis said. “It took a village prior to COVID and I believe it takes an even larger village now with even more resources.”