Greg Johnson’s regular round of house calls usually includes visits to “motel moms.”
He calls them that because the single mothers live in inexpensive motel rooms, trying to get ahead or just survive.
In his line of work, he meets a lot of them.
Johnson is the Coeur d’Alene School District’s first family resource specialist - one of only a handful in the state. Since he took the job this school year, Johnson estimates that he has worked with the families of 50 to 60 “at-risk” elementary students.
Johnson’s referrals come from teachers, principals and school secretaries worried about a student who is missing school, falling behind, sickly or having other problems.
Sometimes, a simple concern may wind up revealing a multitude of family problems - poverty, depression, substance abuse, joblessness or perhaps domestic violence. It’s Johnson’s job to help improve those situations so children can succeed in school.
“You feel like Santa’s little helper,” said Johnson, who percolates with cheerfulness on a day-to-day basis despite the harrowing lives he encounters. “But it’s not just at Christmas; it’s year-round.”
School principals describe Johnson as an unassuming guy who immediately puts people at ease. They say the former Youth for Christ counselor is the ideal go-between for troubled families and the various agencies that can help them.
“Parents don’t feel threatened,” said Ramsey Elementary School Principal Ann Walker. “They enjoy him being there because of his demeanor.”
One visit Johnson made late last week was to check on a “motel mom” who’d been living in the same motel for two months.
She had lost her job because she didn’t have transportation. She couldn’t get her driver’s license back until she paid off hundreds of dollars in court fines for a driving violation.
Her girls had been having behavior problems at school to the extent that one child had been kicked off the school bus.
“When kids are having a problem, sometimes they can’t talk it out, so they’ll act it out,” Johnson explained.
But recently, things were looking up. The girls were doing much better in school, and when Christmas came, community volunteers delivered a bundle of presents for the holidays. The mother told Johnson it was her best Christmas ever.
Before that, “she was very suspicious of everything,” Johnson said. “But now she’s more trusting. She thinks people really do care.”
Johnson knocked on the motel room door, and after a moment of rustling inside, a young blond woman in a bathrobe answered. At her bare feet were scattered crayons, evidence of her son’s coloring project that morning.
She invited Johnson in, apologizing for the mess.
After some conversation, it became clear that she was getting desperate. She was planning to leave her daughters with their grandmother while she went away to stay with a friend. There, she would try to raise the money she needed to get her driver’s license back.
The girls would have to change schools, something they didn’t want to do.
As she talked, the young mother fought to maintain her composure.
“Anything I can do to help, kiddo?” Johnson asked gently.
“No, I’m kind of beyond that now,” she answered, lifting her preschool son to her lap. She played with his toes and listened quietly as Johnson suggested a meeting with teachers to make the transition smoother for her girls.
The young woman nodded but didn’t look at Johnson, as if fearing that opening her mouth would cause sobs to spill forth.
After leaving, Johnson was subdued.
“The most devastating thing for kids is abandonment,” he said later. “They don’t ever bounce back from that.”
Johnson would visit the woman again in a few days, armed with a list of options short of leaving her children.
Although Johnson doesn’t always succeed in achieving a secure, healthy home environment for children, his house calls have made a difference for many students, principals say. His work also has taken the pressure off teachers to provide things such as clothes and food for needy children.
“It’s critical,” Ramsey Principal Walker said of the family resource position.
Now, the job is paid with state tobacco tax proceeds which are earmarked for substance abuse programs. By supporting families of troubled elementary students, the school district hopes to build traits in those children to help them resist drugs as they grow older.
In the short term, much of what Johnson does simply gets children to class, which increases their chances of success in the long run.
“Doing this kind of stuff can be really frustrating,” Johnson admitted. “But knowing there are so many organizations and agencies that can help people out, that makes it real doable.”
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