Blake Martin, a Wichita financial adviser who grew up in poverty, gave two vanloads of gifts and $1,250 on Friday to the nearly 1,900 homeless children district officials have found in Wichita schools so far this year.
The gifts he brought included diapers, about a hundred winter coats, paper towels, toiletries and hundreds of toothbrushes. Many of the items were bought in the past week by clients and friends he organized via phone calls and postings on Facebook.
School district officials said the gifts were worth about $2,000. Martin said he’ll bring more money and more gifts in the next few days.
A supervisor at the Northwestern Mutual office in Wichita where Martin works, after Martin told him that the school district’s coordinator of homeless children had lost her office computer to a breakdown – donated the computer from his own office, Martin said.
That district coordinator, Cynthia Martinez, greeted Martin with a hug, and with carts to carry the bags of belongings.
“This is like Christmas,” she said.
She said dozens of other people in the region donated clothing, toiletries and cash in the past two weeks. Including what Martin brought, she’s collected about $5,000 in cash and $3,000 in gifts, she said, all inspired by a story in The Eagle on Jan. 13 that explained the size and scope of the situation of homeless children in the schools.
Some donors gave as little as $10. Two gave $1,000. Several donors told her they had been poor, or homeless themselves, including an elderly woman who told Martinez she had been homeless during the Great Depression until a farm family took her in.
Martinez said she opened a note from the Hutchinson Correctional Facility on Friday. In it was $20 from a prison inmate from Wichita, whom she declined to name. He wrote her that he had once been homeless in Wichita, too.
“I was glad to get his donation, but I wonder how long he had to work in prison to earn that $20,” she said.
The bad news about the donations, Martinez said, is that the money and supplies, though welcome, won’t last long.
When the newspaper story ran two weeks ago, teachers and social workers had so far identified 1,829 homeless students. They have found 67 more since then.
Last year, social workers and teachers identified 1,733 homeless children in Wichita schools. She expects the district might exceed 2,000 homeless by the end of the school year.
But along with the vanloads of supplies he brought Martinez on Friday, Martin, 30, promised to do more.
“I am a real big Republican, and believe in the values of fiscal responsibility, entrepreneurship and the value of growing companies,” Martin said. “But I know, because I hear some clients and other people say, that there are people who are takers, who want to take handouts. And I know where they are coming from, but I also know the flip side. I grew up in a trailer, in a trailer park, and my mom worked several jobs at once.
“There are takers,” he said. “But there is also need. Some people don’t know there is this need because they live in places where they never see it. So maybe one of the things I might try to do is grab some of these people by the hand and shove them in a car and take them here in Wichita where they can see reality.”
He told Martinez this week, as he gathered supplies at his home and office, that he intended to keep asking friends and clients for donations, and that he wanted to personally tutor members of homeless families in how to manage what money they do have. He also accepted an invitation from Martinez to join her advisory board, helping her find ways to help the homeless students.
Martin said he “is blessed now, with a nice car, and a nice home” on the east side near the Wichita Country Club. He acquired that lifestyle, he said, by first earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and then a master’s in business administration from Baker University.
But the reason he was able to earn those degrees, he said, was that he got a scholarship in college to play soccer.
This would never have happened, he said, had it not been for a wealthy man from Texas, now deceased, who had a habit of helping children like him. That benefactor, Martin said, paid to keep Martin playing soccer as a child in tournaments all over the country, even in Europe.
Had it not been for that help, Martin said, “Who knows how I would have turned out?”
Educators who work with the homeless families say many of the parents want to work and are neither lazy nor unintelligent. In the previous newspaper story, Martinez said many of the families that teachers and social workers now encounter are not the chronically or generationally poor. Some, she said, are people who – until the economy stumbled in 2008 – had good jobs and homes they have now lost.
Last year, when the United Way of the Great Plains did its annual count of homeless adults and children in Wichita, it found 555 homeless adults and children. The agencies that help the homeless consider that to be the official number for Wichita.
United Way does its count using the federal Housing and Urban Development definitions of homelessness: If you’re on the streets or in shelters, you are homeless.
But the U.S. Department of Education says anyone “doubling up” – or living with another family – is also homeless. More than 1,300 of the children identified as homeless in Wichita schools are living doubled up, Martinez said.
Martinez said she plans to use the dollars donated by Martin and others “very sparingly.”
She won’t spend it on basic needs like toothbrushes or toothpaste, she said. Instead, she will use it as a reserve fund, for the many times she said she encounters a family about to be evicted, or who just arrived in town with no place to sleep. She will use the money, she said, to buy things like gasoline cards, deposits on rent, or money to pay utilities just shut off.
Last year, she said, to take care of those 1,733 homeless students found in Wichita schools, she used a federal grant of $129,000. That money covered not only basic needs of families but transportation of children to school.
Many of the children’s families change homes several times during the school year, which can disrupt the lives of the children if they change schools. District officials have used the grant money for transportation, including taxis, trying to keep those children in the same school no matter what area of the city they have moved to.
But that grant to Wichita schools got cut to $106,000 this year, even though they have so far found nearly 270 more homeless children than last year, Martinez said. They stopped using taxis after the grant was reduced, and they were running out of some supplies until this week.
The money Martin and others donated will help many children, for a while, Martinez said.