‘This pandemic has ravaged them’: Nonprofit provides support for vulnerable students

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When schools closed for in-person learning because of COVID-19, most students were forced to adapt to a new way of learning virtually. Some became worried and isolated.

“I would describe it very hard and stressful. It mentally broke me down some,” said Kierra Gregory.

Gregory was a student in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools when the pandemic forced her to stay home for the remainder of her senior year. Her son Aidan had not yet turned two, and she had three younger siblings who were also learning from home.

Gregory said it was so overwhelming at times that she didn’t think she would graduate.

“So my mom, she had to work to keep providing for us,” Gregory explained. “I would be at home making sure my siblings got on Zoom; and it was difficult, they didn’t want to do virtual learning. They didn’t want to do anything. Neither did I.”

But Gregory did graduate, and she credits the organization Communities in Schools (CIS) for helping her.

She says the organization provided her with tutoring, social and emotional support, and sometimes even childcare.

“I don’t think if I didn’t have that motivation, I wouldn’t have graduated,” Gregory said.

Currently, Communities in Schools has staff in about half of the high poverty schools in CMS. The organization helps students with academics, health needs, clothing and mental health.

The nonprofit has been providing its services to students for years, but officials say they’re facing an uphill battle now trying to reach as many students as possible because of the pandemic.

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“This pandemic is not over. There are thousands of kids who haven’t made it back to school, and there are plenty of kids who are in school, but they’re there in body alone, their mind is not there,” said Men Tchaas Ari, president and CEO of CIS Charlotte-Mecklenburg. “This pandemic has ravaged them from mental health standpoints. It’s impacted some of their family members (who) have died as a result of pandemic.”

Tchaas Ari says that identifying students who need extra support to keep them on the right path is crucial.

“I think as a community, we have to realize that this solution is bigger than one institution. It’s bigger than the school system, it’s bigger than our organization, it’s bigger than local governments,” Tchaas Ari said.

Anna Kennington with CIS says the organization is hoping to provide support to more students by expanding to all CMS schools in the future.

Kennington says CIS received a grant and is hiring reengagement specialists.

“Those specific site staff are going out in the community, making phone calls, making home visits, to try and locate these students,” she said.

Gregory says being able to graduate during this trying time – especially as a new mom – gave her a new confidence and strength.

“I felt like I could do anything in the world after that. It was the best feeling in the world,” Gregory said.

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