NACOGDOCHES, Texas – The number of Nacogdoches children living in poverty continues to rise, and students in the Stephen F. Austin State University chapter of the Phi Upsilon Omicron national honor society for family and consumer sciences are working to help the community understand the depth of this problem.
At 30.9%, the poverty rate in Nacogdoches far exceeds that of Garrison (20.6%), Lufkin (21.3%) and Longview (18.3%). It is twice the state’s poverty rate of 14.9%, according to U.S. Census Bureau data based on 2013-17 American Community Survey five-year estimates.
More than 80% of Nacogdoches Independent School District students were designated “economically disadvantaged” by the Texas Education Agency during the 2018-19 school year. This means these students were eligible for benefits from programs including the National School Lunch Program, were from families with an annual income at or below the official poverty line, and/or were eligible for benefits under the Food Stamp Act of 1977.
This data inspired Phi Upsilon Omicron members to launch a service project in mid-October that began with a nap mat donation to NISD elementary schools, progressed to an underwear and sock drive for school-age children, and culminated in a resource fair at Banita Creek Park on Nov. 16.
Tracie Estepp, a food, nutrition and dietetics senior from Georgetown and vice president of the SFA chapter of Phi Upsilon Omicron, said the service project’s focus on children in poverty also grew from experiences she had assisting homeless teenagers in Nacogdoches.
“It is difficult for these adolescents to open up about what they are experiencing, so I began to wonder what the younger children of Nacogdoches are facing,” Estepp said. “Phi U President Sierra Smith and I then met with the school social workers to see how we could help them assist these children in need. Once we got a list from them, we started reaching out to local businesses and the community."
With help from Walmart, Phi Upsilon Omicron was able to donate 30 nap mats to NISD elementary schools. Lumberjack Harley-Davidson, M&S Pharmacy and Tipton Ford, along with several departments on the SFA campus, helped the honor society collect 813 pairs of socks and 588 pairs of underwear for NISD children in need. And local businesses and churches helped Phi Upsilon Omicron raise $1,105 in Walmart gift cards, which social workers will use to help families on an individual, case-by-case basis when other community, nonfinancial resources have been exhausted.
“As school social workers, our jobs are to reduce the barriers to learning that students face,” said Lauren Ivy Sieja, an NISD social worker. “These donations will help us assist students and families with their most basic needs.”
At the resource fair, volunteers from East Texas Community Health Services, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service office, local food pantries and businesses, and other community and SFA organizations helped those in need find information about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, sliding-scale fees for medical and dental services, and supplemental food assistance. In addition, they helped connect local residents who were looking for volunteer opportunities with organizations assisting those living in poverty.
The resource fair, “A Roadshow to a Brighter Future,” also offered inspirational activities, such as writing messages for the “Take What You Need” bulletin boards designed by Phi Upsilon Omicron members. Tailored to different NISD schools, these bulletin boards are designed to help social workers address the more emotional needs of NISD students.
"Now that we have fulfilled some of the children’s tangible needs, we are looking forward to working with the social workers next semester on our Take What You Need boards,” Estepp said. “Those will help us provide students with intangible needs, such as love, hope and encouragement.”
The service project involved collaboration with NISD social workers, City of Nacogdoches officials, the Nacogdoches Farmer’s Market and local businesses and churches. Working with these different groups across the community helps prepare SFA human sciences students for their careers.
“It’s refreshing and encouraging to see our students in this honor society apply the knowledge and insight they’ve gained in their classes to benefit families in need in the community,” said Dr. Jennifer Newquist, assistant professor in SFA’s School of Human Sciences and the faculty advisor for Phi Upsilon Omicron. “They have taken the first steps to expand their social and professional understanding as they prepare for their futures as family life professionals.”
NISD officials appreciate all the work Phi Upsilon Omicron has done to make a difference in Nacogdoches children’s lives this semester.
“We are so grateful for Phi Upsilon Omicron and for all the SFA student and staff support we receive at NISD,” Sieja said. “From the donations that Phi Upsilon Omicron collected to all of the volunteers who mentor and encourage our students, we really find ways to work together to support our community.”
To help NISD students, contact Erin Windham, coordinator of the NISD parent and patron assistant center, at firstname.lastname@example.org.