“Just help me help who I need to today,” Mindy Smith softly prays as she opens the doors to the halls of Highland High School, removing the barricade between herself and the noise of teenage-dom. She knows this Salt Lake City school well. She attended Highland. So did her husband and their five children. Smith moves through the maze of youth to her office. Her official title is family support coordinator, but to take her work at the face value of her job title is an understatement. It’s on her to make sure that, no matter what, no one gets left behind. 

That’s the aim at least.

In the Salt Lake City School District, 50 percent of students belong to low-income families. At Highland High School, about 600 students of the around 2,000 student body check that box. There’s a thin line — sometimes only a paycheck wide — between “low income” and “impoverished.” Numbers for the national child poverty rate are estimated to fall between 17 and 33 percent. It’s not an easy number to determine, because there’s shame, as well as practical obstacles, to reporting the facts. But the reality is that millions — more than 11 million — of children are impacted. 

Children growing up in poverty suffer. Their biological stress markers are elevated, which leads to varying negative cognitive, emotional and behavioral consequences. One longitudinal cohort study by researchers from Duke University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Michigan found that children growing up below the poverty line have reduced gray matter volume in their brains, eight to 10 percent below developmental norms. Under poverty, children are at risk for homelessness.

In the neighborhood where Highland is, the median household income is $98,043. But there are enough students without a home to fill a classroom. Lack of stability — especially if that means not knowing if there will be a roof over their heads or where the next meal is coming from — leaves children more vulnerable to trauma, lack of medical care and education interruptions. Students without a home are more than twice as likely to be chronically absent compared to their housed peers, resulting in measurably lower academic performance. And research from the American Psychological Association shows that these students are more likely to be bullied.

Children growing up in poverty suffer. Their biological stress markers are elevated, which leads to varying negative cognitive, emotional and behavioral consequences.

But for the millions of American children living on the edge of poverty, the solution appears to be simple: Adults who can, in oftentimes small ways, show them support. “You hear some of these kids talking about teachers … ‘this teacher likes me,’ or ‘this teacher cares for me.’ And that means that they’re going to listen to that individual,” says James McMillan, educational psychologist and professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University. “That individual becomes a role model and maybe even gives them some tough love when needed. That connection is very, very important.” 

Smith volunteered for nearly a decade at Highland before she was hired full time in 2018. Over the years, she’s organized a food pantry, a room of clothes for students to shop without price, washers and dryers, and private showers in her school, made possible by the school district. She has helped students take advantage of a policy that waives fees for students to participate in extracurriculars and created a budget to supply the gear and materials they’ll need for those activities. 

On a morning in August, she winds through the sea of students, passing out granola bars. Waving, smiling, asking, “How’s school? How did the test go?” Slowly, trust builds with each exchange. It might be on the 14th granola bar, a student says, “Hey, I’m in trouble. I need help.” It’s a balancing act of recognizing the needs of children at risk and acknowledging that their realities are different from what we normally expect — all while not adding to shame and disgrace.

Slowly, a safety net is woven. PTA moms participate. Teachers get involved. A lunch lady noticed a teenager wearing the same clothes three days in a row and brought her to Smith. The student was in crisis and Smith was able to connect her with the right resources and organizations. Students have begun providing support, too. Smith’s assistants sort through the food pantry, making sure no food is expired, and the pep club makes posters thanking community members for their donations. Even students who have graduated are eager to come back and keep the momentum going: Let’s keep helping. 

Karen Sanchez Garcia is one of those students returning the favor.

Sanchez Garcia and her mom met Smith at the beginning of her freshman year at a community meeting in 2019. As a student, she visited Smith’s office, although, at first, she was scared. “I am a person that hates to bother people — I’m usually the type of person to try to fix my problems by myself,” she says. “But after that first interaction that I had with Mindy, I felt like maybe she’s someone I could rely on whenever I feel vulnerable or at a point where I can’t pick myself back up. And so I started visiting her office a lot more frequently. Not even to ask her for anything really, just to stop by and say hi and have someone to talk to.”

Even when things became difficult for Sanchez Garcia and her family during the pandemic — mentally, emotionally and financially — Smith was there. “She’s just a good person and she took care of me throughout all of high school, making sure that my grades are OK and that I’m doing OK,” Sanchez Garcia says. She graduated and became the first in her family to attend college. And she became a peer mentor, translating for students in need.

 “If you’re told that your circumstances are so dire that it’s hard to climb out, or nearly impossible — that’s debilitating, that’s not helpful.”

From organizations like Shoes That Fit, which donates brand-new shoes to children in need, tackling one of the most visible signs of poverty, and No Kid Hungry, which fights food insecurity, to local volunteering, the impacts of service are visible. Last school year, Amy Fass, the CEO of Shoes That Fit, received a call from a local principal who had noticed that even though one little boy was dropped off at school every day, his classroom attendance was coming up short. Turns out, he was hiding outside after the bell rang, avoiding the bullying taking place inside because he was wearing his sister’s hand-me-down jelly shoes. Fass and her team showed up with a brand-new pair of shoes, given to the student privately. He didn’t miss a day of school again that year. 

Service and connection to others, no matter your circumstance, is empowering. “Meaningful achievement and being productive through your own efforts lead to high self-esteem, high self-efficacy, and strong motivation for the future,” says McMillan. “I think that it can be very powerful whenever we engage in service to others.”

During his research, McMillan interviewed 62 students at risk who overcame their academic adversities. One common denominator was acceptance of their circumstances. Their sentiments expressed neutrality toward their environments: It is what it is. The lack of self-victimization parallels what Smith, Fass and others on the front lines prioritize in their own efforts: focus on potential, rather than problems. “If you’re told that your circumstances are so dire that it’s hard to climb out, or nearly impossible — that’s debilitating, that’s not helpful,” McMillan says. 

The second was a caring authority figure: A stable adult who believed in, cared for and encouraged them. Real impact and change comes from a mentor. A teacher, counselor, a “Smith.” “I really do feel like the most important component is that someone cares and is listening,” she says. “We will never solve all these problems. We can do something. I do think that if you can serve someone and help someone, it can change the world.”  

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.