Over summer break, My Student In Need nearly doubled in size.
At the end of June, 70 schools statewide participated in the nonprofit. Two months later, there are 130 schools participating, and My Student In Need executive director Kim Wombolt is being called to speak on the national level.
Since September 2013, My Student In Need has served as an intermediary between need requests and anonymous donors. It was born of My Neighbor In Need, founded in Great Falls by Dave Snuggs, a way for people to "ask for help with dignity," Wombolt said.
"Nothing really seemed to be moving," Wombolt said of My Student's growth.
Then Heather Denny, state homeless education coordinator, got wind of the effort in a meeting with school homeless liaisons from across Montana.
"Before I left (the meeting), we went from a small 70 schools to we're doubling in size and speaking at national conventions," Wombolt said.
Since June, they added schools in Helena, Kalispell, Butte and Billings.
Wombolt and Denny will speak about My Student at the MEA-MFT conference in October, and the following week Wombolt and Trish Kirschten – Missoula County Public Schools' Title I federal projects coordinator and Families in Transition liaison – will present at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth conference in November in Orlando.
Wombolt's goal is for My Student to grow to 200 schools by next summer, and to 300 by summer 2018.
"It really has a life of its own and we're just on the train trying to keep it on the tracks," Wombolt said.
"And that only addresses the state of Montana plan."
In less than three years, My Student has fulfilled 1,500 need requests across the state.
"Most of the needs come out of the bigger communities, especially the ones that have the homeless programs," Wombolt said.
That's because smaller schools often have the ability to take care of these needs within their communities, she said.
"It's when you get to the bigger communities, you don't necessarily know your neighbor, and it becomes a struggle," she said.
MCPS quickly latched on, starting with My Student a few months after it began.
"In a community like Missoula, there are houses going up left and right, there's a housing shortage, it's a huge seller's market – people don't think about economic issues necessarily when they see a community thriving," Kirschten said. "And yet, we had 461 homeless students in MCPS last year."
It's not obvious because most of these kids are not on the streets.
"Homelessness for education is different from homelessness for HUD," she said.
They have different definitions. Homeless students are "individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence," according to the McKinney-Vento Act. That can mean a kid sleeps in a car, spends a night in a motel, or is in an emergency shelter, among other possibilities.
"I think in today's society we are so disjointed and we don't know our neighbors anymore," Kirschten said. "We don't know necessarily what's happening within our own community."
Parents don't make requests. Everything must come from a school professional: a teacher, counselor, principal, etc.
The teacher "who has direct hands-on knowledge of a child's need" will submit a request to My Student. It's vetted by staff and it goes online to mystudentinneed.org (Note: There are no current needs on the website because most schools have not started yet).
Anyone in the world can then fulfill that need, most often through a monetary donation that My Student turns into a gift card. The school professional will take the student, if they're old enough, shopping for the need. Or if the student is too young, the school staff member will do the shopping on his or her own.
Most requests are for clothes, shoes and coats – though once in awhile, the request turns into its own story, such as when Grammy Award-winning trumpet player Arturo Sandoval donated a trumpet after spotting a My Student request.
A donation "is never turned over to a parent," Wombolt said.
"There are preventative measures to make sure it's not abused."
There are some general categories of items that can be requested – clothing, shoes, personal hygiene supplies, bedding, etc. – but there are few set guidelines. A few things cannot be requested, however: vehicle expenses, gas, insurance, driver's license fees, vehicle repairs and telephone fees.
"It's good for the community because they see change actually happening," Wombolt said. "It may not seem like much, but in a world where we don't ever seem to get to the end of something, knowing a kid got a pair of shoes – that's a big deal.
"I wish I could say someday we won't be in business, but I don't think that's the reality."