SALT LAKE CITY — It all started with a conversation with a student who told the East High School principal she was sleeping behind a grocery store.
That led to the creation of a program to help the school's approximately 80 homeless students. And a year later, the program has helped more people than anyone ever thought it would.
“Whether they are part of the homeless community or underprivileged, everyone is welcome here. And we’re all united as East High students,” said Ainu Kaufusi, East High School senior and student body officer.
A year ago, community donations enabled students to set up showers and a washer and dryer in the school basement under the gym. The Leopard Stash was also created. It’s a food pantry that provides healthy snacks and groceries for students and their families. The Leopard Boutique is a place where students and families can find new and gently used clothing, shoes and jackets.
“We want people to feel welcome and feel loved,” Kaufusi said.
She said it’s important to make students feel included in the student body, especially at a time in life when it’s easy to feel harshly judged by their peers.
Everything is provided free of charge to the students and supported through in-kind gifts, cash and donations from students, families, PTA and community members.
“They have a lot of burdens that I think a lot of students can’t really imagine what they’re going through,” senior Matt Simmons said. “So the more that we can do as a school to lift those burdens, the better.”
Simmons, who is also a student body officer, said the area used to be gloomy and dark and uninviting, but that all changed recently. This week, artist Matt Chew and East High students finished a mural at the entry of the washrooms.
“We’re trying to create a community,” Simmons said. The school motto this year: "Be the change."
“Putting emphasis on the community that needs to use these washrooms was something that we thought was really important in incorporating all of the students into this community that we’re creating,” Simmons said.
Sixty to 70 students and about a dozen families regularly use the facility.
“We certainly are getting more use than what we imagined 12 months ago,” said school Principal Greg Maughan. “It’s bigger and better than I imaged it would have been.”
Other schools and school districts in Utah and across the country have contacted him to ask how they could incorporate the program in their schools. His advice?
“The first piece of information that I gave those people that would contact me was to build some sort of relationship of trust with some students and ask them what your school needs because this is what East needs, it doesn’t mean you need it. It’s what we need. And you may find that you don’t need the same thing.”
The project spearheaded by the family support coordinator at the school is a success thanks to the community.
“It’s been a very humbling experience to be able to see how our community, how our school comes together to support others in need,” Maughan said.
Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc