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School Districts Nationwide Challenged to Give to Student Riders in Need

Mesquite Independent School District recently completed its second annual toy drive for students covered by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, and its transportation leader is now calling on districts nationwide to develop similar initiatives.

Transportation Director Michelle Ramm said in 2019 she had a “crazy” idea to help the district serving McKinney-Vento students in time for Christmas. Students classified under the McKinney-Vento Act are defined as homeless or in foster care.

“McKinney-Vento students are really precious to me because they’ve got so much transition going on in their lives and we want to do everything we can to keep it as normal as we can for them,” Ramm said, adding that the district serving the suburb east of Dallas transports around 50 McKinney-Vento students in a normal school year.

She advised a plan through the transportation department to “adopt” a select number of McKinney-Vento students at Mesquite ISD and provide Christmas presents to them. She reached out to the McKinney-Vento liaison for the district and received a list of 16 kids, as that was Ramm’s goal at the time, to see what these students wanted.

“And we looked at the list, and these kids are asking for towels,” Ramm said. “They’re asking for facewash, deodorant, warm clothes, and a blanket. … things that we take for granted every day that we have in our homes and it tugged at our heartstrings.”

She said more transportation employees stepped up, and in 2019 the district provided Christmas presents to 25 students. But then her school bus drivers and monitors caught onto the program.

Ramm said her driving staff started gathering smaller gifts and organized a food drive for the students. She said by the end of 2019, all 25 students not only received Christmas presents but also stocking suffers, canned food, and a $10 gift card to buy a hot meal during the school break.

Mesquite ISD during its 2019 Toy Drive
Mesquite ISD transportation staff pose with the gifts donated to the 2019 Toy Drive for students who qualify for service under the federal McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

For 2020, Ramm said the department’s goal was to provide gifts to 50 students, however, they received donations for 60. “I just get so emotional, I was all teary-eyed that whole week we put it all together,” Ramm said.

Following the toy drive, she received a call from a sibling of one of her school bus drivers, who works at a Walmart. She said employees from an out-of-district Walmart signed up to help the program for this upcoming year, which now has a goal of helping 160 McKinney-Vento students in the district.

Superintendent Dr. David Vroonland and Michelle Ramm pose with all 60 gifts for Mesquite ISD students. (Photo courtesy of Mesquite ISD.) 

“I know you can’t see me right now but I’m feeling really good thoughts,” Ramm said during a phone interview. “You know just the way it has all fell into place, and everyone has stepped up. I didn’t know how everyone was going to take that idea … I shouldn’t be surprised at all because my transportation department has a big, huge heart, all transportation departments really do, and they don’t get to show how much they care enough. But this is definitely one way here in Mesquite that we get to show it.”

But Ramm doesn’t want the idea to only encompass Mesquite ISD. This year, she is calling on transportation departments nationwide to create a toy drive of their own. She is starting a “Transportation Challenge” to encourage districts to give back.

“How can I not come out and challenge other transportation departments to do what we’re doing,” Ramm said. “And they don’t have to do the number we’re doing. It’s not about how many you do. It is about making a difference in the student’s lives.”

Ramm invited districts interested in starting a transportation department toy drive for McKinney-Vento students to contact her. But initial communications should already be taking place between McKinney-Vento liaisons and transportation departments. She said Mesquite ISD will be releasing a timeline to help districts get everything in order, but she advised starting to plan in the summer when there is “downtime.”

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Meanwhile, last year she said campus personnel delivered the gifts to the students who didn’t have transportation to pick up the presents. Though she said, the department was planning on putting together a banquet, in which they could present each gift to the child, the coronavirus pandemic made that goal difficult.

While the district has 810 students currently identified under the McKinney-Vento Act, Ramm said she is taking it one step at a time to help all the students her department can.

“For us, it’s the feel-good part of the year, we get to find out exactly what our kids need, and we get to meet that need. I’m going to tell you, we’re very blessed to have Mesquite ISD because [it] has taken care of [its] employees,” Ramm said, referring to being paid over the COVID-19 school closures.

She explained that the toy drive was her department’s way of saying thank you. “Our employees are the lowest-paid employees — and in any education system drivers and monitors don’t make a lot of money — so for them to be willing to give this much, that tells you exactly who these people are that work in transportation. They’re not in it for the money. They’re in it because they have a love and a desire for kids, and they show that through this giving program.”

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