Why this WT mom feeds homeless students at TJ High School

‘Feed just one’

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

The bell rings at 8:50 a.m. at Thomas Jefferson High School and students drift into Room 161. A writing prompt on the white board asks, “Since you became a teenager, what is the greatest challenge you have faced?” For senior, Michael, and three others that day, it’s homelessness. In addition to the DISD-provided free breakfast program, volunteer Claire Rathbun is there each Friday with extra food, a smile and encouraging words. Today, she arranges Chick-fil-A breakfast sandwiches, bananas and mandarin oranges on the counter. She partners with teacher Cecilia Rivas and members of Walnut Hill Methodist Church to supplement the breakfast. The weekly check-in with the students forges lasting bonds. Rathbun works two part-time jobs, one as an office manager for a creative agency and another as a floral designer. Her sons attend W.T. White High School and Longfellow Career Exploration Academy.

How did you become involved in this program?

I tracked down someone from the homeless education department and they said “yes,” in fact there is such a program, but it’s sparsely attended. Only maybe two of the homeless kids show up on Friday mornings. It just so happens that in my Sunday school class, my friend Carol is the school nurse at Thomas Jefferson. So I was talking to her about this, and she helped me. I asked a lady at the homeless education department what was needed, and she said they just really need consistent faces. I coordinate local people in the community each week to donate breakfast. People can go drop it off at the school or bring it to me if they have to go to work. I just go, and I eat breakfast with them and hang out with them.

Are you the consistent person in their lives?

Yes, I’ve been doing it a little more than a year. At the beginning, the students were quiet and shy. By the end of the year, they talked and joked with the adults in the room. It’s fun, light-hearted and a time of fellowship. If they have a serious topic, Ms. Rivas is in there, and they can go to her for help.

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

How many kids come each week?

It varies between 10 and 20. It depends. For example, one young lady comes very often, but she’s also very focused on her academics, so she might need to go study or finish an art project.

What kind of food do you usually serve?

Well one thing is that the school is required to provide food. So, even if I didn’t bring anything, they would have food. People donate anything from breakfast tacos to Chick-fil-A chicken minis. Sometimes it’ll be those Owens sausage biscuits, and I’ll heat them up at my house. I ask for fresh fruit. People bring apples, bananas and oranges — things that are easy for the kids to put in their backpacks and eat later.

Is there anyone special that you’ve gotten to know over the years?

Deja is the young lady I was talking about earlier. She’s really focused on academics. She’s funny and smart. She cracks jokes. She tries to eat

healthy. She’s sweet and friendly to everybody. There was a young man named Junius. I was so sad when he told me at the end of the year he was transferring to South Grand Prairie High School because that’s where his mom lives. He was just so quiet at the beginning of the year, and he had a hoodie on all the time, just like my son does. It’s like a little cocoon you’re hiding in. We started talking, and we gave each other hugs. Ms. Rivas reached out to me about him and some other boys who weren’t going to have anything for Christmas. I was able to gather some money. I went to Target. They had Christmas presents due to people’s generosity. I got them clothes, shoes and a basketball.

Who else stands out?

In May of 2017, Ms. Rivas called and told me about a young lady in our program who wanted to go to prom but couldn’t afford it. The community got her a dress and shoes. She got her nails done. A couple I know paid for an Uber to get her to and from prom. If you ask people for help, they are so willing. Our community is so generous.

How can neighbors help if they’d like?

They can contact Ms. Rivas at cerivas@dallasisd.org. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


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