Bethesda Magazine | November-December 2017

Hope Lives Here

Nearly three-quarters of the students at Germantown's Daly Elementary School are from low-income families. For the principal and her staff, academics are only part of the job.

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About 125 of the 615 Daly students live at the Middlebrook Mobile Home Park, the county’s only trailer park, just off Frederick Road (Route 355) in Germantown. Photo by Stephanie Williams

At a meeting in February, the principal of Cold Spring Elementary School in Potomac told colleagues from other schools that her students had brought in a thousand cans of soup for a “Souper Bowl of Caring” drive, and she hadn’t decided what to do with them. It was the good soup, Dietz says, the thick, chunky kind that could serve as a meal for her families. She held up her hand. “I’ll take them,” she said. 

On a typical Friday, about 100 Daly students leave with small bags of nonperishables, such as applesauce and microwavable mac ’n’ cheese, which are donated to the school by the Women Who Care Ministries in Gaithersburg. Some kids start opening the snacks before they get on the bus to go home, which they aren’t supposed to do, but when you’re chronically hungry, you eat when you can, one teacher says. A few years ago, Dietz started a “kids’ fund” to help families in crisis. Most of the money—there’s rarely more than a few hundred dollars in it—comes from members of her own family; a portion is from other donors. Dietz has tapped into the fund to help parents pay overdue electric bills—she’s called Pepco and asked them to turn a family’s lights back on—or to buy gift cards to Giant. She’s had parents walk into her office and tell her they had no groceries. 

“Imagine going to somebody, not a family member, and standing in front of them going, ‘I have no food to feed my kids,’ ” Dietz says. Her eyes fill with tears. She hears this several times a year, at least, but never gets used to it. “Sometimes [people] will say to me, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure they really need it?’ I’m not going to make that judgment. If you’ve come to me in that state, and you are putting yourself out there like that…then I have to help you.” 

She’s never shied away from telling Daly parents about her own struggles, she says, how she had six small children to care for before she had a college degree and how her family came close to the poverty line. Or how one of her daughters had a learning disability. “You have to put yourself out there,” says Dietz, who keeps a stuffed bulldog, the school mascot, in her office. “If you have yourself up here, they hold you at an arm’s length. That’s never been me.”  

She doesn’t give out cash, she says, and she’s never felt like a parent was lying to her. “I always say to my staff, ‘You have to think, would you do that? Just for [a] $50 gift card?’ I don’t think many of us would,” she says. “You can tell, too, when people are really struggling. You can tell.” 

Veronica Palleres, Daly’s parent community coordinator, connects families to county services and community resources, and helps organize school events such as Donuts for Dads (right). Photos by Stephanie Williams

Some students show up wearing clothes that are too small or shoes with broken soles. Last year, Daly’s parent community coordinator, Veronica Palleres, put in an application for the Rack Room Shoes’ “Shoes That Fit” program, and received a $2,400 gift card to use on kids’ sneakers and boots. She called parents for permission, then measured each child’s feet in her office. It’s Palleres’ job to support Daly families, which can mean tracking down a crib for a new mom, connecting parents to the Charles W. Gilchrist Immigrant Resource Center so they can sign up for English classes, or going to the trailer park to distribute handouts about immigrants’ rights. In May, she organized a visit from the Smile Programs’ mobile dentists, which offers in-school dental care—including cleanings, fluoride treatments and sealants—and has a grant program to cover the cost for children who don’t have insurance. 

Palleres hugs every mom she meets—“they just need that,” she says—and keeps a Maya Angelou quote on her office wall that reads, We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated. She’s worked with mothers who are coming out of domestic violence shelters and need a place to go. She refers some parents to the Watkins Mill Cluster Project—a joint effort between Montgomery County Public Schools  and the county government—where they can apply for food stamps, housing assistance and other services. Last spring she met a Daly mom who said her child didn’t have any medical coverage. “Write down your name, number and address,” Palleres said. “We’re going to get your daughter health insurance.”

Two years ago, a family of four from Honduras moved into the mobile home park but could only afford to rent one bedroom. Another man, a stranger to the family, rented a second room, and an older woman who owned the trailer lived there, too. Teacher Sara Kelley, then Daly’s parent educator, had been working with the son, who had significant speech and academic delays. When the parents finally got their own place to live, the mother called Kelley. “That’s awesome,”  Kelley said in Spanish. “What do you need?” 

“Everything,” the boy’s mom told her. 

Kelley, a mother of three who grew up in Germantown, talked to her colleagues. “Listen, we have this student who’s moving into a new trailer with nothing,” she said. “Nobody has a bed. They don't have a table. They don't have anything.” Teachers looked around their own houses and asked friends what they might be willing to donate. It was winter break. “We had probably five staff members that drove over with carloads of stuff, and two with trucks that brought beds,” Kelley says. 

Counselor Loren Felsher almost took a job at a school in Bethesda, but thought she could make more of a difference at Daly. In her first year, she had to call Child Protective Services a handful of times to report allegations of abuse, and two brothers told Felsher that their mom said they weren’t allowed to speak to her anymore. Sometimes she finds herself looking on case search websites to see if a parent has a criminal history. Seven Daly students have a parent who is incarcerated. “I just ordered a book for next year, My Daddy’s in Jail,” she says during a conversation in May. “I never thought I would order that book.”

Kids often come into Felsher’s office for impromptu “lunch bunches,” where they’ll talk to her about their weekends, or a fight they’re having with a friend. She’s had conversations with first-graders worried about being deported. When she returns home to her own kids, it can be difficult to stop thinking about what she’s heard at work that day. She often reminds her son and daughter how lucky they are. “It’s hard to sleep at night sometimes. It’s hard to separate,” she says. “I need to figure that out so I don’t burn out. …And it’s not just me, it’s all the teachers. They’re all so passionate.”

Felsher, who lives in Gaithersburg, says many of her friends there have no idea what life is like for some kids who go to school 15 minutes away. Her husband was upset last year that they couldn’t go on a trip for spring break. “Come on,” she said. “Are you not hearing my stories?”