A student doesn't have to be literally living on the street to be considered homeless.
As of Jan. 15, 128 students in the Appoquinimink School District have been identified as homeless, and since then, that number has probably gone up.
And the four women who work with them treat them like they're their own, whether it's finding them a place to live, applying to college, or going to prom.
When one Appoquinimink High School senior wanted to go to her prom, district social workers Eunice Deputy, Jackee Wade, Lorraine James, and Dawn Hall, made sure that it happened – even if it meant digging into their own pockets.
"It was a real Cinderella story," Deputy said.
The young woman had been classified homeless for the entire four years that she attended AHS, and when the end of her senior year came, she wanted to attend prom.
It was the first time that she had ever had the chance to try on dresses, James said. She went into the dressing room with 25 dresses to try on.
"She had never done that," James said. "It was a good experience for her."
Not only did money from the school help pay for what was originally a $400 dress, but the team of social workers used money from their own pockets and their bargaining skills to make sure that their student got the gown of her dreams.
Then when it looked iffy that the student didn't have a date, Wade's son, a football quarter back at the school, was put on standby – just in case.
"She had a whole bunch of mommy's in us," James said.
The four women try to treat all of the students like that – keeping in contact with them after they graduate from high school.
Last year, about 40 percent of students classified as homeless in Appoquinimink, went on to attend some kind of higher education institution, Deputy said.
Identifying the homeless
The 128 plus students who are homeless in Appoquinimink will not be seen on the streets.
"We identify students as homeless if they are living doubled up, in motels, if they had lost their home, or if they're not living in their own home," Deputy said.
The most common situation is having two or three families living under one roof.
Children living in foster care are also classified as homeless.
Deputy said that they use a case management approach to help homeless students.
"We have built it up collectively as a team," she said.
The program began in 1999 and it gets bigger each year because more students are identified as homeless each year, Deputy said.
"We follow them from the beginning until the end until they are no longer homeless," she said.
The women canvas all of the schools in the district, and if they find a student meeting these criteria, a referral is sent out. An assessment is done and they determine the needs of the students – and then they work to fill their students' needs.
They try to work as a family with the program.
The four social workers are each assigned schools to cover in the district, but they try to keep siblings together with the same case worker.
"If one has siblings, we take them all on," Wade said.
They also conference a lot about their kids, so they know each other's' kids – just in case one woman is out, then all situations can be handled.
Their office in the Appoquinimink Training Center in Odessa has been nicknamed, "The Warehouse."
Behind the four cubicles are closets and shelves filled with clothing, school supplies, toiletries, and anything else a student would need to get through school.
A grant through the Department of Education allows the district to provide the services and supplies to the students, Deputy said.
A lot of the items also come through donations, especially items in the food closet, which is located at Middletown High School.
Donations come from the community, district staff, parents, local businesses, and even students.
"Food is donated by staff and parents," Wade said. "If a family needs food, we put together it together based on household size."
Right now, the Warehouse is low on toiletries.
"When families are in the situation that there is a lock on their door, they don't have the basic needs," Wade said. "We work close with the State Service Center to get them a place to stay."
With the economy, there haven't been a lot of homeless students going from homeless to not, Deputy said.
On average, it takes about two to three years for a family to find a place to live, if they do.
"They do not bounce back quickly," Wade said. "Sometimes, the students end up [living] in other districts and we provide transportation."
At the end of the year, the women sit down with the students to determine what would be in these students' best interest – whether it would be to attend a different school or to continue coming to schools in the Appoquinimink district.
The money from the Basic Education Tools grant provides the transportation up until the end of the school year.
Older students and preparing for 'adult life'
Wade said that they are finding that older students' families are more likely to split up – leaving the older children to fend for themselves.
"They have to stay with someone else," she said.
There are special activities for students in their junior and senior years of high school to help them prepare for college or life after graduation.
"We go to college fairs and collaborate with admission counselors," Deputy said.
Sometimes moving around and transitioning all of the time affects students' academics.
"They have dreams and aspirations too," she said. "We try to make those a reality."
One student went on to attend college in Oklahoma with a scholarship through the National Association of Homeless Kids.
He was awarded the scholarship three years ago, and was the first student in the state of Delaware to receive it.
Others have gone to Delaware Technical and Community College and Delaware State University. Some go to tech schools, community colleges, or other four year schools.
One girl enrolled in beautician school.
With students who have no place to live, the women look into four year colleges so that they would have a place to live.
"It'll help them be more self-sufficient and break the cycle of homelessness," Deputy said.
This month, the crew of social workers will take the 18 or so homeless students who are juniors and seniors to Hornet Day at Delaware State University, Wade said.
After spring break, older students are also taken to Del Tech for a day to see the majors that the local two-year college has to offer.
Free pre-testing is offered to the seniors who are interested in attending too during that trip.
A special treat
"We treat them special," Deputy said. "At the end of the year, we bring them on a trip."
During the family trip to Dorney Park, the women hand out the students' summer reading materials, and snacks.
"It's so they can do something fun at the end of the school year," Wade said.
Families are invited to come along on the trip – since in most cases, they cannot afford to take trips during the summer.
Scholarships are also given to students to attend summer camp.
Usually one student receives a full camp scholarship, but last year, there was enough money to send three students to camp for three weeks.
"It makes the parents really happy," Deputy said. "All four of us are in the community trying to find what we can grab free for the kids."