In a world of uncertainty & struggle, advocates give voice to parents and students

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As families in the southeast side of Grand Rapids face difficulty accessing housing, meeting basic needs, and even fears of potential deportation, community leaders in the schools are working hard to provide them with resources and support. 

It is the middle of the morning on a Wednesday at Alger Middle School, and in the now silent hallway lined with metal lockers stands Raquel Robelin with a broom in both hands, sweeping the paper remnants left by the young student who moments before shuffled their books and notebooks in and out of the lockers in preparation for the next class. When not seen picking up trash from the hallways, making dozens of copies for the fourth graders’ math class, or answering phone calls from worried parents, Robelin spends whatever time she has advocating for and inviting parents of Alger Middle School students to get involved.

Robelin, who has resided in Grand Rapids’ southeast neighborhood for the past 20 years, first began volunteering at Alger Middle School to help advocate for her daughter, Teija McCall, who requires extra academic support in the classroom to be successful. McCall is now a freshman at Ottawa Hills High School.

Robelin preparing hand out for parents of students at Alger Middle School. “My daughter was there, and she needs special help and attention. I thought that by being at the school I would get to know her teachers and her [paraprofessionals],” explains Robelin. Since then, she has gone from a parent volunteer to what’s known as a parent action leader a volunteer position at Alger Middle School responsible for recruiting and retaining parent involvement at the school.    

For families like Robelin, being present at their children’s school isn’t always easy, as many are facing juggling strict work schedules while attempting to meet the rising costs of rent and their children’s basic needs.

“A lot of families are struggling. They are low-income, and there are other responsibilities they prioritize for their children. A place to live and access to transportation is at the top of their list,” says Robelin.

In a school were 91 percent percent of students qualify to receive free or reduced lunch, it is safe to assume families are spending their waking hours preoccupied with how they will be able to survive financially month to month.

“The families I work with definitely care about their kids' behavior, attendance and grades. They do all that they can to provide for their kids. I have seen families work two to three jobs to provide for their kids, and sometimes that means they can’t come to parent meetings,” explains Javier Cervantes,  a bilingual community liaison at Linc Up, a nonprofit community development organization based in southeast Grand Rapids. Cervantes focuses on building relationships with families from the southeast neighborhood and connecting them to resources to ensure success in the classroom and at home.

Cervantes, who also resides in the southeast neighborhood, works with many families in the community who are either undocumented or foreign born residents with language barriers and little understanding of how the school system functions in the United States.

“I try to bridge that barrier by using my skills as a bilingual and building relationships with the families. Eventually, they learn to trust that the information I provide them with is beneficial and in their best interest,” shares Cervantes.

In the southeast community of Grand Rapids, 65.8 percent of renters are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, the majority of whom are black and Latinx residents who make up 78 percent of all southeast residents, according to data obtained from the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.

More recently, says Cervantes, some of these families are experiencing an added stress caused by the fear of potential separation as word of an increase of immigration raids has spread throughout the country since the election of Trump, whose immigration stances have falsely accused Mexican immigrants of exporting crime and poverty into the United States.  A 2002 study using data from the Census and American Community Survey, published in the Federal Sentencing Reporter by the University of California Press, found immigrant populations to be less crime prone than native-born populations. Numerous other studies back up those findings as well.

“There are a few families I have encountered who have lost a family member due to deportation. Because of that, we invited an immigration attorney to all the schools we work with to give free legal aid services. A lot of families are benefiting from that, and they are sharing that information with each other,” says Cervantes.

According to Cervantes, more work needs to happen to ensure families who are experiencing a language barrier feel welcomed in the schools.

“Parent meetings, and papers going home are not always interpreted or in Spanish, and we need to continue to work towards making everything bilingual,” shares Cervantes.

Berniz Terpstra, Kent School Services Network Community School Coordinator at Gerald R. Ford Academic Center, a public school in the city’s southeast community, echoes Cervantes sentiments.

“For our Latino families, language and literacy in English is a huge barrier,” says Terpstra, who lives in the city’s southeast community For the past four years, Terpstra has been working to help these families adjust to ways public education functions in the United States.

One of the issues Terpstra has been addressing with the area’s families is access to housing by providing in-school classes on credit repair and homeownership programs. After four years of working with families at Gerald R. Ford Academic Center, the community school coordinator has seen an increasing number of families struggling to pay their rent. 

“Home is where kids go to feel comfortable and safe—when families are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing—this very basic human right is threatened, as well as the academic success of the students,” shares Terpstra.

According to Terpstra, 99 percent of the student population at Gerald R. Ford receives free or reduced lunch, a federal school program set up to help address low-income students’ nutritional needs by providing a free or low-cost meal to students during school. In other words, many families in the southeast neighborhood with whom Terpstra works depend on her ability to connect them to resources.

One of the resources Terpstra connects families with is after-school programs in the community, as so many families in the area are working hourly jobs and do not have the flexibility to pick up their child at the end of school, according to the community school coordinator. Gerald R. Ford Academic Center is able to offer LOOP, a free after-school program that provides academic support for up to 30 students. Terpstra then works with community organizations to connect the rest of the families to other after-school programs, like the Boys & Girls Club of Grand Rapids, which offers an after-school program for a $5 annual cost to families in the community.

Changing the community-at-large’s misperception of the families Terpstra and Cervantes work with includes bringing to light the ways parents in the southeast community are getting involved with the schools when they are given flexible scheduling options from teachers and administrators.

“These parents are very hard working parents, and they don’t always get to show this to the teachers and administrators. When we change school culture to provide them with bilingual services and a flexible schedule for parent meetings adapted to their work schedules—these families show up in full support,” states Cervantes.

Even though Robelin’s daughter, McCall, has since graduated Alger Middle School and gone on to attend Ottawa Hills High School, Robelin has continued to volunteer as a parent action leader at the school. As a longtime resident of the community, Robelin sees her role in her neighborhood as one that connects and invites parents to get involved.

“I would like to make change and make things better to help families feel welcomed in our schools,” says Robelin. 

On The Ground GR

On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the southeast end between Wealthy Street, Cottage Grove, 131 and Madison Square.

Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.

You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at [email protected] and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

On The Ground GR is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, an organization working to guarantee livability of all children.
Photography by Dreams by Bella.

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