BCOE youth coordinator nominated for national award
Generally speaking, people don’t choose a career in social work for the glory. Though their daily actions may profoundly impact the lives of the individuals and communities they serve, recognition is rare, and the rewards more often personal than public.
“It’s more of a culmination of little things, like the look on a child’s face when they have a success, no matter how big or small,” said Meagan Meloy, of her job’s rewards. For the last decade, Meloy has served as coordinator for the Butte County Office of Education’s (BCOE) homeless and foster youth services (collectively known as the School Ties program). “They can be as simple as seeing a kid being so excited and proud to go to school with a new backpack, to going to graduation and GED ceremonies.”
Meloy is now being recognized in a big way, with a nomination for a national LifeChanger of the Year Award. The award is presented annually to 10 K-12 educators and school district employees by the National Life Group, a consortium of financial-service companies that also operates a nationwide charitable foundation. Winners will be announced this spring, with the grand prize carrying a $10,000 cash award ($5,000 for the winner, and $5,000 donated to winner’s school district).
Though she acknowledged she’s “honored” by the nomination, the modest Meloy—who is one of four California school employees in the running—said she sees it more as recognizing the work of her whole team, as well as the government and community agencies with which they partner. She also said she’s more excited about the spotlight it puts on the program and the greater issues it addresses than she is about receiving a personal commendation.
“I’m happy to see attention brought to the issue,” she said. “Any recognition that helps people realize that there are a lot of homeless and foster kids here in Butte County is good. This isn’t just an urban issue or something happening somewhere else. It’s happening here.”
Meloy estimated that School Ties provides about 500 foster and 500 homeless children in Butte County with services including enrollment assistance, transportation arrangement, school supplies, advocacy and case management. Meloy and her small staff, headquartered in a mobile unit at the edge of Chico’s “Tree Farm” (officially known as the USDA Forest Service’s Genetic Resource and Conservation Center) oversee these operations for 14 separate school districts within the county.
Meloy said about 125 of these youths are homeless in the commonly recognized sense—living on the streets without parent or guardian supervision. She explained that the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act expanded the definition of homeless, when applied to children, to include those in shared housing situations, which she said accounts for about half of the children School Ties serves.
“That’s the group I consider the hidden homeless,” she explained. “There’s a lot of controversy and attention with homelessness issues like what’s evident in downtown Chico, but that’s just a little sliver of the picture.
“There’s a whole segment of that population not hanging out downtown or causing problems,” she said, “but going to school and work and trying to make ends meet, and bouncing around between family and friends. Those families need a voice, too.
“The instability of those situations can have just as much psychological and emotional impact as being on the street,” she continued. “In some ways, I think they have an even greater need, because there’s no structure and services in place for them.
“In a shelter, for example, there’s 24-hour staff on duty, there’s food every night, showers and supplies, heat and warmth, and the opportunity to get connected to health care and other services. Families outside of that system can be even more at risk.”
Meloy said she’s seen a steady increase in homeless students every year. In 2004, BCOE identified about 100. Though she partly chalks up increased numbers to her program’s improved outreach and ability to identify these children, she said actual numbers have also risen, with the biggest spike in 2010.
In recent years, Meloy said School Ties has been invigorated by increased input from the youths it serves. This input has led to the latest goal of establishing a mentoring program, in which Butte College and Chico State students who’ve experienced homelessness and foster care firsthand will help junior high students in similar situations identify and accomplish their educational goals.
A School Ties intern currently working to help establish this program, who asked not to be named, is a living example of the program’s benefits. She is a former foster child who became involved with advocacy after attending a California Youth Connection “Day at the Capitol” conference in Sacramento six years ago, and used School Ties services to help her graduate from high school and go to Butte College. Now she’s a Chico State student finishing her final semester before graduating with a degree in political science. She noted only 3 percent of foster children earn college degrees.
“It gave me an opportunity to see there’s a way out for foster youth, a chance to have a better life,” the intern said of School Ties, adding that Meloy herself has been an inspiration.
“[Meloy] definitely changed my life,” she said.
Meloy’s co-workers also speak highly of her, praising her “infectious energy,” tireless work ethic and commitment to her cause.
“We are so proud of Meagan for her recognition,” BCOE Superintendent Tim Taylor said via a press release. “She truly is a ‘life changer,’ and her commitment to help our foster and homeless youth succeed through education is truly inspirational. She reminds people what education is all about.”
Readers can help Meloy win the award by commenting on her profile at www.lifechangeroftheyearnominees.com. The School Ties program produced a video called “When Students Are Homeless” that can be seen or purchased on the BCOE website (www.bcoe.org/divisions/sps/school_ties).