Homeless students find hope in their principal
According to a new government report today, more than 900,000 schoolchildren in this country have no real home. That's up 18 percent since the start of the recession.
CBS News national correspondent Byron Pitts reports there's one school in Las Vegas, where nearly every child is homeless.
LAS VEGAS - Charlee Morrow, 10, is described by her principal as an old soul with modest dreams.
What is it like to be homeless at just ten years old? "It felt really sad, because I thought we were going to be homeless for the rest of my life. All I want is to have a big house with my family."
Inside Whitney Elementary School in East Las Vegas, nearly 85 percent of the children are homeless. That's 518 kids out of 610.
Principal Sherrie Gahn says, "I thought that I saw the ultimate poverty when I got here eight years ago and every year it has gotten worse and the recession made it ten times worse."
Gahn knew she had a problem that a traditional public school could not fix. "When I saw the children eating ketchup for lunch, and wanting to take it home," she says, "it just crushed me."
So Gahn came up with a plan involving the kids, their parents and the community.
"I told the parents that I would give them whatever they need," Gahn says. "All I need them to do is give me their children and let me teach them. In turn I will give you food and clothes and we will take them to the eye doctor. I will pay your rent, pay your utilities, but keep your child here."
The children get free clothes, free bread to bring home and even free haircuts. Almost all of it given by 500 donors and local businesses who drop off donations daily. Gahn creates a wish list, and her army of volunteers makes it happen.
The contributions are large and small. One woman in Philadelphia sends $20 per month. A gambler gives $2,000 monthly - a portion of his earnings. This is Vegas.
Las Vegas has long been the city of bright lights and broken dreams. But especially now - with 12.1 percent unemployment, and the highest foreclosure rate in the country. One in every nine households receives a foreclosure notice.
Like most of her classmates, Charlee lives in one of the many rundown crime-ridden motels in the shadow of the Vegas strip.
Her family lost its home to foreclosure three years ago. Her father Chad is a construction worker. He hasn't had a fulltime job in two years.
"There is not a lot of people moving dirt right now in the Vegas valley," Chad says. "That's what I do. That's what I love to do.
As for Charlee, she dreams of being an actress. Principal Gahn has a bold dream of her own.
"I tell every 5th grade class if you make it through junior high you make it through high school and you can't afford to go to college come see me and I will make sure that you go to college," Gahn says. "We have a small trust fund that we started."
Gahn says the children are worth the big promise. She defines success as "The look in their face that I made their life better. That's my success rate when they hug me and thank me for the food, the clothes. Then I know it's a good day."
Today is especially emotional for Gahn - it's the last day of class. Many of these kids and their families will be on their own until September. So next fall, she hopes to open an after-school program. So Charlee and her classmates can have a safe haven when the school day's done.
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