Stark County CARE Teams support students and their families during times of need

Last year, a few days before Thanksgiving, Ann Walker, a single mother of three, came home from work with severe pain in her abdomen.

“The last thing I remember is getting in the ambulance, until I woke up at the Cleveland Clinic, 10 days later,” she said. “My kids are the most important thing to me, period. I remember telling one of my sisters that I needed a piece of paper and a pen, so that I could sign custody of them over, because I thought I was going to die — I did almost die.”

After being diagnosed with a hernia, Ann had multiple surgeries, followed by several post-operative complications. For more than 90 days, she was in and out of the hospital and a nursing home. During that time, her two younger boys, Alex, age 15, and Will, age 11, stayed home with their older brother, Eric, age 24. Eric continued to work and care for his younger brothers, while they continued to go to school, but they struggled to afford food and gas to visit their mother, who was an hour away.

One day at school, Will mentioned to his teacher that his mother was in the hospital and on a ventilator. That’s when CARE Team got involved, to provide the Walkers with the support they needed.

Connecting families with valuable community resources

The CARE Team Initiative, which stands for Coordinates & Aligns Resources to Engage Empower & Educate, is a program through the Stark County Educational Service Center that provides intervention and support to students struggling with non-academic barriers. Funded in-part by United Way of Greater Stark County, CARE Team connects students and their families with social service resources and support, so they can continue to be successful at school. The program serves approximately 8,500 students and in 21 school districts and 114 buildings throughout Stark County.

A number of different services can be involved, depending on the individual needs of the students and families. For example, a student facing a housing crisis might benefit from mental health counseling services, food assistance or emergency shelter.

When a new case arises, a group of professionals, comprised of educational staff, family support specialists and school-based mental health specialists, come together as a unit to help the individual needs of students and their families.

One special thing about the CARE Team program is that there are no social economic boundaries.

“It was built for anyone who needs help in any school district served by the Stark County Educational Service Center,” said Kay Port, CARE Team Director, “The Care Teams are built to take care of the child in a school setting. But the beauty of them is they extend beyond the school setting.”

Personalized care for students and families in need

Each family is assigned a family support specialist, an advocate outside the home. They develop a relationship with each individual family and determine how CARE Team can provide community resources to help the students in their home environment so they can come to school, ready to learn.

Kristen Gaskell, a CARE Team Family Support Specialist in Jackson Local School District worked closely with the Walkers during Ann’s recovery to provider her with updates, peace of mind and to coordinate care for her boys.

Gaskell organized the CARE Team’s efforts, providing meals, financial assistance and gift cards, so the boys could visit their mom at the hospital. Through the CARE team’s backpack program, the boys received backpacks every week filled with food and snacks that they could prepare themselves. The backpack program is free and available to any student in Jackson Local Schools, regardless of family income.

“When I got out of the hospital, there was so much food there. I didn’t even know what to do with it all because of the over-abundance of support and help and love. They went above and beyond to make sure my kids were taken care of,” Walker said.

“[The Walkers] have been an amazing family to work with,” said Gaskell. “They’re very gracious. They have spoken very highly of CARE Team and what it’s done for them, and it’s been equally rewarding experience for me too.”

Anne with her sons in front of Jackson High School

UNITED we see a place to learn and grow

United Way of Greater Stark County offers braided funding for the CARE Team program.

“What I love about United Way is when you look at their bold goals for health, education, and financial stability, we’re able to take those core beliefs and apply them in a school setting,” said Port. “How can we make sure that our families are healthy? Not only physically healthy, but are they emotionally healthy? How can we make sure that our students have a strong educational background and a strong educational career path? And how can we make sure that our families can prosper financially, therefore staying in this school district, and therefore being able to give our students and their children this stability that they need?”

Walker credits United Way and CARE Team with helping her family, while she was in the hospital and recovering.

“The program is amazing,” said Ann, “Without the support of United Way, I’m afraid of what would have happened … if my kids did not have food and I wasn’t there to go to the store, or they didn’t have money to go buy it. None of this would have been possible without United Way.”

UNITED we see what’s possible

You can help more families like the Walkers by funding education programs and services in Stark and Carroll County. Learn how you can make a difference.