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Raleigh program keeps kids clean with hygiene kits
 
Published Thursday, August 9, 2018
by Maria Magher, Correspondent

RALEIGH – Most people understand that kids who don’t have enough food aren’t going to do well in school. Numerous agencies offer food assistance for needy families and children. Many also offer other assistance, like clothing and school supplies.

However, Utica Cason said she discovered there were not a lot of resources supplying low-income and homeless children with needed hygiene supplies like soap and shampoo – items that can make a huge impact on a child’s self-esteem. That’s why she started SOAR – Stay Out and Renewed – for school-aged children in Wake County.

“I did some research, and I didn’t see this kind of service being provided here locally,” Cason said. Offering these hygiene kits to students “provides them with self-confidence. It prevents them being a target of bullying, which has become a big thing now. It allows them to feel self-respect and confidence in themselves.”

Cason started SOAR in 2014 as an outreach for homeless men, helping them become self-sufficient through job training, clothing donations, and more. But the outreach required much more time than Cason could give. She took a year off in 2017 to determine where to take the outreach. Through her research, she discovered there were no organizations specifically offering hygiene items for school-aged children, even though they were critical to the children’s success.

“The main thing is providing them with self-confidence,” Cason said. “It plays a big part in shaping them and helping them be successful.” She also pointed out that proper hygiene helps children to stay healthy so that they miss less school and stay focused while they are at school.

SOAR gets hygiene products from donors and through donation drives. The organization then creates kits that include a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, body wash, soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, and lotion inside a large Ziploc bag. A label on the bag includes the name of the organization and the website.

A press release from SOAR said that 14 percent of Wake County children are living in poverty, and the school system identified over 3,000 students as homeless. In order to provide hygiene kits to the right students, Cason said, “we partner with the social workers at each school, and we target Title I schools in Wake County. We also target schools that have a higher percentage of students on the free and reduced-lunch program.”

Jeanice Young, a school social worker at Walnut Creek Elementary, said she received the first delivery from SOAR at the end of July. She requested 25 bags to start, but said she expects to need many more once the word gets out.

“The program is helpful because we have a lot of kids whose parents are struggling, even right down to hygiene products, so having those hygiene products is really important,” Young said. “We do receive food, we do receive clothes; we have different outside agencies that supply that, but they don’t supply those hygiene products.”

She said having the hygiene products helps the kids smell better and to feel better about themselves.

It also reduces the risk that they will be victims of bullies or even shaming comments from teachers.

“You have educators who don’t mean to make them feel bad, but you know, they do,” Young said. “These are babies. They can’t help it; they don’t have jobs.”

Young said the school will be sending a letter home with students letting families know about the resource.

“I always ask the parents first because the pride gets in the way,” she said. “You don’t want to humiliate them.”

Brittani McLean-Watson, a school social worker at Knightdale Elementary, said the school received its first shipment earlier this year.

“It’s been really, really, extremely helpful,” she said. “I like the fact that the kits are pre-assembled. I like the fact that everything is individual, everything is the same in each kit. I’m able to discretely hand them out to both students and to parents.”

She said she received 50 kits with the first delivery and has already delivered over half.

“I have a million resources on food and know where I can get that stuff, but very rarely do we get resources on hygiene and places that provide that stuff,” she said. “I think it’s really able to build that relationship between the school and the students and families.”

Cason said she’d like to expand the program to at least 15 schools by the end of the year.

She and five volunteers distribute the kits in her home, and Family Promise of Wake County has partnered to help with the distribution.

Cason said she is open to expanding the program to Durham County if an individual wanted to partner with her and oversee those efforts.

Right now, she is operating the program in Wake County in her spare time while she works a full-time job in software support and another part-time job in dispatch for community corrections.

 

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