Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Even with schools closed and students sheltering in place at their homes, Operation Shoestring is continuing to find ways to help children and their families during the COVID-19 outbreak. Executive Director Robert Langford recently discussed those efforts with Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren. Langford is a graduate of Washington and Lee University and San Francisco State University. He has led Operation Shoestring for more than two decades.
So, what is Operation Shoestring doing now?
“Four weeks ago, coming off of spring break, we ended all of our in-person services and sent the staff home, although some have still been in and out of the office. We have a few priorities. One is ensuring that all the kids and families we serve are getting adequate nutrition. The second is continuing our education programs, even though we realized we couldn’t deliver it the way we had been, which is through in-person after school tutorials. The third is really being a support for and being in touch with our families.”
How are you doing those things?
“We had to adapt how we do all that stuff. Jackson Public Schools is providing take-away meals at 12 sites in the city, including our neighborhood school, Galloway Elementary. We’ve directed our families, if they need or want food, to go to one of those sites on weekday mornings, and all children up to 18, are provided free meals. We have also provided the schools with a list of the adults in our program and have said we would underwrite the costs for them to eat. (While children eat free, parents have to pay).
“Starting three weeks ago and going through the end of the month, JPS is doing evening meals for citizens at three sites in Jackson – Chastain Middle School in North Jackson, Galloway in central Jackson, and Cardozo-Bates, which is a combined middle school and elementary school in South Jackson. At each site, JPS is providing 500 evening take-away meals, one day a week, as well as 150 boxes of fresh produce provided by a local urban farm, Footprints Farm, and we are underwriting it, thanks to the support of a local congregation, trade associations and several generous individuals. We are urging all of our parents to take advantage of those feeding options.”
What about learning? How are you helping students in that area?
“We really had a steep learning curve. The first thing we did was realize the great possibility in doing some instruction online, which is not necessarily a sliver bullet. We polled our families and discovered that at third of them had internet at home, which means that two-thirds don’t. While almost all of our families have cell phones, a lot of online learning platforms don’t work on cell phones. We have a Barksdale Reading Institute, and Lexia Learning to provide individualized online literacy programming for our kids. For those kids who don’t have internet, we’re working to deliver hard copies of the materials and put them in the hands of parents, so children can work on those at home. That is one of the things we’re doing, with respect to literacy.
“We’re also doing, as a lot of people are, Youtube videos. That includes everything from reading a book that a child can follow along with, to talking about some basic kinds of things that they can do in terms of crafts and other activities to stay busy. We are setting up some Facebook Live events for families as well. All of those things are easily accessible from a smartphone, and many of our families have smartphones. We are evolving as we learn how to do this and learn about our families and their access to technology. If this drags into May or into the summer, we are looking at redirecting our resources to purchase Chromebooks or tablets so kids can have a better experience.”
With children not being in the classroom, and not participating in in-person programs at Operation Shoestring, are you worried they’ll fall behind academically?
“I think there certainly is a concern about that. I have seen concerns about that nationally. It’s not unlike what people refer to as the summer slide. For kids in low-income communities, who are not exposed to somewhat structured learning opportunities during the summer, we see some regression in academic performance in the first term of school. One of the reasons we’re working so hard on the delivery of our literary services now is that once schools are back operational and we are reopen, kids can get back up to speed quickly.”
How many kids are you serving now? And what schools do they come from?
“We have about 230 in our program. Our goal is to serve all of them. They go to Walton Elementary and Galloway Elementary.”
Are the in-home lessons less impactful, in terms of helping students?
“I would say in-person is always better, particularly if a kid is struggling academically. What we understand from the Barksdale Reading Institute and the Lexia Learning Literacy programming, is that it’s something kids love. It’s evidenced-based, meaning that it’s proven to improve kids’ literacy outcomes if the process is followed with fidelity. If the kids love it, they’ll do it. Also, with Lexia Learning, it allows our team members to monitor children’s progress and work with them on certain concepts they may be struggling with.”
How do you connect with children and parents now?
“Phone calls. They could facetime or Zoom. All our families are on a listserv (email service). We also have parent help lines and several members of our full-time staff are available to work with kids as needed.”
Is what Operation Shoestring doing now costing more or less than its traditional operations would cost?
“There are certain fixed costs. We have a building we have to pay for. We have to heat and cool it. We have insurance we have to pay for. There are some costs savings in terms of food, but they’re not major. One thing we’re watching and making sure of is how we can keep our staff on the payroll. The new CARES Act, the federal stimulus, has some provisions that could allow us to keep our part-time staff in place. We have a full-time staff of about 10, and a part-time staff of about 20 or 25. What we’re waiting for is to find out if our application for some of that stimulus money will allow us to keep our part-time staff on through June 30. If we don’t get the funding, that will be a real challenge.”
How much did you ask for from the feds?
“The way the program is designed, the amount your eligible for is determined, in part, formula based on the size of your payroll for the last year. For us, it’s probably about $160,000. It doesn’t cover all of our total costs. It would cover a good chunk of our payroll, utilities, our mortgage and one or two other things. It does include benefits for employees as well.”
So employees are working now?
“Yes; our full-time team is working and some of our part-time team are working.”
How are donations going now?
“One thing we know is that people who would normally be donors are concerned about their own economics and their own businesses and companies. So, we do have some concerns about that, particularly if this drags into the summer. I am deeply heartened at how local businesses and congregations have reached out to me during the outbreak to see what they can do to help.”
So, you expect giving to drop?
“This is about the time of year when we launch our fundraising effort for our summer program. I would say there has been a slight decrease in giving over the last four weeks. But it’s a little early to tell, because we’re three weeks into this situation. We expect donations to be down, particularly from individuals on fixed incomes, or from individuals whose investments are affected by this.”
What is Operation Shoestring’s annual budget?
“About $1.6 million.”
What are your plans for the summer program? Do you have a contingency plan if donations drop and schools don’t reopen?
“One of the issues is going to be where can we house all of our kids. We can’t serve the total number of kids we normally serve only in our building. We partner with JPS and St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, to house some of our students there. But we just don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know when any of our schools, public or private, will go back in session. We are building out our plans, budgets and staffing based on several contingencies. The hardest part is the unknown.”
How many kids to do you serve during the summer? And how many would you serve if the program was just held at Operation Shoestring headquarters?
“We serve between 250 and 300 kids at our summer programs … if we could only operate in our building, we would need to scale back. We can have 150 to 175 kids in that building.”