ATLAS program assists Rutherford County students in time of need

By Morgan Murphy, Studio M staff //

This Thanksgiving, not everyone in Rutherford County will gather around the table to enjoy hot, homemade food. Rutherford County Schools has more than 1,000 identified homeless students. Through a homeless assistance program, county administrators are working to provide more resources to these students.

“We work with around 30 churches and other organizations to provide weekend food,” said Kim Snell, Rutherford County’s Academic Times Leads to Achieving Students (ATLAS) liaison. “These are kids who get breakfast and lunch for free at school, but on the weekends, they may not have as much as they would like to have.”

Phyllis Butt, Joann Manning and Martha Bowen from Parkway Baptist Church pack at ATLAS bags for Rutherford County students. (Photo submitted by Martha Bowen.)

A child in transition is defined as “children and youth who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” according to the Rutherford County School System website. ATLAS, which began in 2003, provides students with hygiene products and weekend food bags.

In the 2016-2017 academic year, 1,266 students were identified as homeless in the 46 Rutherford County schools.

Parkway Baptist Church in Smyrna is one of those 30 churches. Beth Saunders, 29, the children and youth minister, said Parkway has been involved with ATLAS for one year.

“Our Sunday school classes choose a month, and they are given a list of things to put in the bags. We take them to the school,” Saunders said. “It is all donation-driven. We do 30 bags a month, which helps five to six children, because they get one bag every weekend.”

Saunders said the bags cost, on average, $10 each. Among the items included in the weekend food bags are canned ravioli, cereal, shelf-stable milk, peanut butter and crackers, fruit cups and granola bars.

“The backpacks we send home are not meant to provide everything that a child would need to eat on the weekend, but they do supplement what the parents would need to provide,” Snell said.

Each school in Rutherford County works with Snell to identify homeless children. Guidance counselors at the schools identify the children and distribute supplies.

“My guidance counselor knows exactly who is in the ATLAS program,” said Ginger Tucker, principal at Stewarts Creek Elementary in Smyrna. “It’s a very well-kept secret.”

Adds Snell: “We chose the name ATLAS to avoid the stigma of using the word ‘homeless.’ We talk about them as ATLAS students and families in transition.

The ATLAS name was chosen after the McKinney-Vento Act, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the Every Child Succeeds Act were put in place by the federal government. These acts require every school system in the United States to have a homeless and foster care liaison like Snell.

Tucker said her guidance counselor makes sure parents have access to all resources Rutherford County has to offer them during times of transition.

“Whether it’s clothes or weekend baggies, our guidance counselors make sure these students have the things they need to equate the homeless population with the children who live in secure homes,” Tucker added.

If you would like to make a monetary or supply donation to ATLAS, call the Rutherford County Schools central office at (615) 893-5812 and ask about the ATLAS program. ATLAS is currently accepting donations of hygiene products, weekend food bags and school snacks. Any clothing donations can be made to Greenhouse Ministries.

Morgan Murphy is a senior studying public relations at MTSU. She can be reached at morganmariemurphy@gmail.com.

Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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