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November 13, 2012 | 05:07 PMWALWORTH — In the far corner of the school's counseling office, there are stacks of winter coats and snow pants, baskets of gloves, hats and scarves.
"If I have a child that comes in and says my coat doesn't fit me anymore, I will go through what we have and find one," school counselor Jen Ott-Wilson said. "We never want a child to be cold or hungry. That affects them directly with learning."
The clothes are donated through the Walworth Childrens Foundation, and Ott-Wilson's goal is to ease the burdens of the 54 percent of students in poverty.
Children living in poverty isn't news for staff at Walworth Elementary School. They've been quietly dealing with it for years.
"There were always some children who didn't have as much as others," School Board President Kelly Freeman said of when she started on the school board. "We had the department store on the corner, and we always outfitted children who were in need with snow pants, boots, things that they needed. A teacher would call and say this is what we need. Like in every small town, you take care of those who don't have."
But Freeman said poverty wasn't the issue back then as it is today.
"It was a totally different time period," she said. "Divorce was very rare. We had many families with multiple children. We had a family go through with nine children. You had these large families that are closely knit. Children went to school well-dressed. Girls always wore dresses. You didn't wear pants."
Census data from 2000, the most recent data available for the village, shows the average income per person was less than $20,000 a year or about $10 an hour.
For Walworth county, the average was more than $26,500 or about $12.50 an hour.
According to District Administrator Pam Knorr, 54 percent of students receive a free or reduced lunch at school.
Families eligible for the program must have incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty level for reduced price and below 130 percent for free lunch.
The poverty level is set by the Office of Management and Budget in the president's administration as a guideline, and income limits vary between federal and state funded programs.
Freeman said hungry students in school is a new development.
"We never had hungry children," she said. "Nothing like this. Some teachers would have food in their rooms, like cereal or some snacks. If the children hadn't had breakfast for some reason, the teachers would feed them in their room."
Because teachers were working independently to solve the problem in the beginning, Freeman and the school board didn't know about it.
"As board members, we didn't hear about this," she said. "Teachers just do. They found if the kid had an empty stomach, they would fall asleep, and they wouldn't learn."
The school board did hear from the community when the school started serving breakfast.
"I don't remember what year we started the breakfast program," Freeman said. "It was not well received in the community. We heard that the school was absorbing parents' responsibilities. I understand all that, but in a public school, when a child walks in the door, they're your responsibility."
Ott-Wilson said students living in poverty face more challenges at school than their peers.
"It's a major concern because we have kids who are coming in who are living in poverty and are behind academically," she said. "We need to figure out as a school how do we get them back on track."
Because of the change in student demographics over the years, teachers and staff have to change the way they teach and interact with students.
"We need to change how we're approaching our students who are coming in with those learning gaps," Ott-Wilson said. "That's really what's happening. You need to take a child at where they are and figure out how to get them to where they need to be."
While the number of students in poverty has grown, the administration's attitude toward it has changed.
"Pam Knorr had an entirely different philosophy," Freeman said. "She came in and changed the environment of the school. We are a school family. We look after one another. We take care of one another."
Freeman said Knorr brought issues to the school board's attention.
"There was a warmth that we were lacking for a while," she said.
"Then we started Family Connections and our newest endeavor the Walworth Childrens Foundation."
Family Connections is a semiannual program to bring families together and get information to parents.
The foundation, a separate entity from the school, exists through private donations.
"Teachers hear about a needy family, and they go to (Ott-Wilson)," Freeman said. "She just brings a list of needs to the foundation. Part of the feeling is if we can help a family, new families feel more comfortable about coming to the school. We hope it makes them stress the importance of coming to school."
For her, a little help is worth it.
"Maybe it's just that I'm an eternal optimist," Freeman said. "When you have that kind of feeling, it goes right down to the kids. It's a better atmosphere to learn, to get along."
"I think that our kids overall are very sensitive to each other," Ott-Wilson said. "We work really hard on trying to nurture a school environment of respect, culture sensitivity, economic sensitivity. I'm not saying that things don't come up. I'm saying we address them immediately when they do."
While kids can be brutal to each other, Ott-Wilson said it's not the case at the school.
"So many of our kids are at that level," she said. "It's not the minority anymore that are facing these challenges. They're the majority."
The students aren't perfect, though.
"I would say it's more like typical teasing," Ott-Wilson said.
"It's not really bullying. I'm really proud of our kids. I really think we have a wonderful group of students who really care about each other."
Ott-Wilson and Lee Knoble-Janney, another school counselor, are just starting to organize the family adoption program for Christmas this year.
"We send out a letter to families on the free and reduced lunch program," Ott-Wilson said. "We ask if they want to sign up, and we say we'll see what we can do."
The program allows businesses and teachers to "adopt" a family, anonymously, who couldn't otherwise afford Christmas gifts for their children.
"What we do is put every family on an ornament," Ott-Wilson said. "It says the ages of the kids and their wish list. We put the ornaments in the teacher's lounge."
Community members and businesses are asked to help.
"By far, most of the ornaments are taken by local businesses," she said. "If it wasn't for MPC, I don't know if we'd be able to do the program."
MPC, a manufacturing firm in Walworth, has adopted multiple families for many years, Ott-Wilson said.
"We have small businesses, too," she said. "It's really like the whole community coming together."