Anticipation built in and around the Jefferson College Field House in Hillsboro on the morning of July 26.
about 100 elementary and high school students from low-income families
lined up and anxiously awaited the doors to open for the annual
Jefferson County Health and Education Fair, the back-to-school
extravaganza at which they gather school supplies for the coming
academic year and receive essential services and health screenings — all
free of charge.
Inside, more than 100 volunteers — mostly adults,
but also 11 members of the St. Vincent de Paul youth at Our Lady Queen
of Peace Parish in House Springs — anxiously awaited meeting them and
fulfilling their back-to-school needs.
“It feels good to help
people in need,” said Alyssa Grosvenor, 12, who will be in seventh grade
at the parish school. “This is God’s will to help others.”
The service was especially poignant, too.
project is really cool because we get to help kids that are our age,”
said Nicole Adams, 18, an incoming freshman at Southeast Missouri State
University in Cape Girardeau. “A lot of the projects we do, we don’t get
to interact with them; we’re just raising money for (other) groups to
do what they do.
“This is the one where we actually get to work face-to-face with them.”
The face-to-face work lasted for four hours and was at the hub of the fair — literally and figuratively.
a literal sense, the St. Vincent de Paul youth occupied the station in
the center of Field House gym, 16 folding tables organized in about a
40-by-40-foot square. There, students picked up all manner of supplies
for the coming year — backpacks, binders, folders, notebooks, paper,
scissors, rulers, pens, pencils and markers.
In a figurative
sense, the young Vincentians, through the supplies, were “helping kids
get the best education they can,” said Emma Robinson, 15, adding that
the service was “rewarding. … It’s a powerful experience to see exactly
how it impacts their lives.”
About 650 students from low-income
families and backgrounds attended the fair, hosted annually by the
Jefferson County Health and Education Committee. Screenings and
referrals for hearing, vision, dental, health and wellness were also
available, along with haircuts, books, snacks and lunch as well
information about school lunch programs, insurance and more. All at no
cost for the students and families, who were verified in advance as
living at a level below 125 percent of the poverty line, according to
Father James T. Beighlie, CM, associate pastor at the House Springs
parish and moderator of the young Vincentians.
agencies were among the three-dozen vendors supplying free services or
information, including Saint Louis Counseling, Birthright of Hillsboro,
St. Louis Crisis Nursery, Mercy Hospital and St. Patrick Center. The
group from Our Lady Queen of Peace raised money through collections at
the parish, donated the funds to the education committee for the fair,
then volunteered to work it.
The volunteer service allows them to
see first-hand the real needs of their cohorts, which they’ve discovered
— through their participation in St. Vincent de Paul — is as
commonplace in rural areas such as Jefferson County as in metropolitan
areas such as St. Louis.
“We know there’s a lot of that in the
city, but it’s out here, too,” said Amanda Kohne, 16, a rising sophomore
at Ursuline Academy in Kirkwood. “I was really surprised to find that
Same with Adams: “I was totally shocked. I had no idea.”
eye-opening experience strikes closer to home than they realized. Young
Vincentians attending the high school in Northwest R-1 School District,
near House Springs, see it every day. According to the Jefferson County
Homeless Youth Initiative, the Northwest District has 150-180 high
school teenagers per year that aren’t living with their parents.
the highest number of kids at any school in Jefferson County,” Father
Beighlie said. Those students may be living with relatives or friends,
couch surfing or “camping in the woods, completely on their own.”
know them because they want to finish high school,” said Father
Beighlie, adding that the young Vincentians raise money to fund
department store gift cards and gas cards to give them at Christmas
time. “It’s right in our backyard. At the back-to-school fair, they
might know some of the kids coming through the line.”
The experience makes them understanding and non-judgmental.
“Anyone can be in this situation,” said Maggie Hardesty, 14. “You really don’t know what they’re going through.”
for at the back-to-school fair. The students from low-income families
generally wore smiles and expressed gratitude as they stocked up for
school, even without prompting.
“It really nice to hear little
kids say ‘thank you’ without their parents telling them to,” said Alyssa
Block, 18, who will be a freshman this year at Jefferson College.
“They’re really thankful. It’s really neat to see them get what they
With a backpack filled with school supplies slung over her shoulder, Natalie Kostecki was effusive in her praise for the fair, exclaiming, simply, “I love it!”