The difference between attending school and skipping classes for some kids can be as simple as whether they have deodorant.
Cierra Matthews, a Spencer High School junior, is helping make sure that her classmates don’t have to face that difficult choice.
“I wouldn’t want to come to school stinky,” Matthews told the Ledger-Enquirer this week. “… I want to come to school and get my education and smell good and look good and just make sure that throughout my high school days I’m not being talked about...”
Matthews and others at Spencer are already helping students who might not be able to afford personal hygiene products. Now, the school and others in the Muscogee County School District will get additional support for those efforts.
The district will open its Student Hygiene Repository on Friday. The move is part of a national trend in which schools increasingly are taking care of student needs beyond the curriculum.
DonorsChoose.org has seen the number of requests for hygiene products from educators who want to help their students soar from one to 1,789 in the past 16 years, the Huffington Post reported in May.
In April, the Georgia Legislature approved $1.5 million in the fiscal year 2020 budget to provide free menstrual pads and tampons at schools and community centers serving low-income areas.
The MCSD repository will be in two classrooms at the former Muscogee Elementary School, creating storage so more MCSD schools can give more students free hygiene products.
Cierra, 16, is president of the peer leadership club called Student Ambassadors at Spencer. She helps keep donated hygiene products stocked in the girls restrooms.
Spencer did have hygiene products available also in the boys restrooms earlier this year, but that didn’t work out so well.
“They’re not very mature like us young ladies,” Cierra said with a smile. “They tend to play with the stuff. …”
Instead, the Spencer boys, along with the girls, can get toiletries in a walk-in closet at the main office. That’s also where new and gently used clothes and shoes are available — even an iron and ironing board — as well as feminine hygiene products.
“They’re very conscious about what they have on and how they look, how they smell and all of that,” Keisha Cook, Spencer assistant principal, told the L-E. “… We just want to keep them in school. We don’t want that to be a reason for you not to be here.”
Cook said encouraging students to overcome the stigma of acknowledging their need can be a challenge.
“They’re always reluctant to talk to you,” she said. “So you get it out of them, and you get the information, and you say, ‘OK, we have what you need. We can help you. We can support you here at school.’”
Cook said “a couple of kids” per day receive such help at the school.
Florene Dawkins, community liaison for the district said a few MCSD schools started hygiene closets on their own three or four years ago. She estimated 15-20 of the district’s 56 schools now have some sort of program that provides free hygiene products to students.
With the opening of the repository, she expects 42 schools to provide this service by the Christmas break. But she wants all MCSD schools to participate.
“Some schools have more of a need,” Dawkins told the L-E. “… Every child needs a good start on learning. It builds self-esteem, eliminates bullying. You feel good about being in school. When you’re not worried about your appearance, learning comes easier.”
According to 2018 data from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, 41% of MCSD’s 30,686 students were considered economically disadvantaged because they live in a family receiving government welfare or are identified as homeless, unaccompanied, foster or migrant.
The hygiene closets are considered a wraparound service, meaning they address a need based outside of school, but students still bring it to school.
“Children need more than books and paper and instruction to learn,” Dawkins said. “They need other things to be successful.”
Dawkins estimated hundreds of MCSD students received free hygiene products at school last year. Now, the central storage area will allow the district to make it a more coordinated effort, she said — and keep the items from overflowing her office in the Muscogee County Public Education Center.
HOW TO HELP
To donate hygiene products or money to buy them, call Muscogee County School District community liaison Florene Dawkins at 706-748-3311.
Financial donations for this effort have amounted to $9,154 so far, Dawkins said.
“It doesn’t take a lot of money,” she said. “It takes a desire to want to see children succeed.”
Hygiene products also can be donated at MCSD schools, she said.
IF YOU GO
What: Grand opening of the Muscogee County School District’s Student Hygiene Repository
When: Friday, Oct. 18, at 10 a.m.
Where: The former Muscogee Elementary School, 3900 Baker Plaza Drive, now called the Steve Butler STEAM Center. That’s an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math.