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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Campaign benefits mothers and children

By Sharon Lynn, Communications Intern,

Radford University United Way of Montgomery County and Radford

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 14 - December 1, 1994

In a nine-desk school room in the New River Valley, complete with books, pencils, chalkboards, and even computers, a teacher grades papers and plans while the children are busy with their lessons. Sounds like most school rooms, but this school room is different. It is the Shelter School at the Women's Resource Center of the New River Valley.

In the past five years, the Women's Resource Center, a United Way partner agency and a Combined Virginia Campaign participant, has housed more than 750 children whose mothers, as well as themselves, are victims of domestic violence. The Shelter School began in 1992 after receiving a Stewart B. McKinney federal grant to educate homeless children. Since that time, almost 100 children have attended the school and countless others have been helped through the efforts of Regional Homeless Youth Educator Donna Merkt.

Teaching grades K-12, Merkt coordinates with 45 contacts throughout Montgomery, Giles, Floyd, and Pulaski county school systems and the City of Radford. These contacts help Merkt get books and homework assignments for Shelter School students so they can continue to study their own curriculum. Area schools donate textbooks, while local churches and the general community donate other supplies. Computers and software were also purchased with grant money available when the program was first established.

"The first concern of the school is the child's safety," Merkt said. "In many instances, children whose mothers are staying at the Women's Resource Center are in danger. It is not always in the child's best interest to remain in public school. Many times, the abuser will go to great lengths to find and take a child to hurt the mother."

According to Merkt, these situations occur quite frequently and are a terrifying possibility for both mother and child. The Shelter School gives children staying at the shelter an opportunity to attend school and be counted present in their own school without having to leave the safety of the shelter. In many cases, the children are also able to receive special attention and counseling they cannot receive in the public-school environment.

Merkt works one-on-one with children enrolled in the school. Because all the children are at different grade levels and in different curriculums, she must teach them individually. Merkt spends much of her time introducing children to their new learning environment and answering questions about their present situation. She also works closely with child counselors (and sexual abuse specialists, if needed) to help the children deal with many of the problems that accompany abusive situations.

According to Merkt, once the children are comfortable with their surroundings, it is not uncommon for a child to begin to disclose instances of sexual and physical abuse to counselors. Counselors must work hard to help the children cope with these past experiences and reassure them that they are safe, and their feelings of anger, confusion, and hurt are justified. When children begin to realize they are in a protected environment, they can begin to deal with their damaging experiences and become more open to learning.

When possible, Merkt prefers to keep the children in their own public-school system. She goes to great lengths to make sure children who are not in danger have transportation to and from school, and are not denied the right to a public education. To help children with homework assignments, Merkt also tutors children after school hours.

The Women's Resource Center's Shelter School has proven successful for the enrolled students. It allows children to continue their education without the difficulties which often accompany relocating to a new school system.

"The women here are going through a very difficult and confusing time," said Merkt. "Removing these safety and educational concerns allows mothers to concentrate on building a better future for themselves and their children."

Through a cooperative effort with counselors, teachers, and school systems, the Women's Resource Center's Shelter School helps make the transition a little easier.

For more information about the Women's Resource Center, the United Way of Montgomery County and Radford and its 35 partner agencies, or the Combined Virginia Campaign, contact the United Way office at 381-2066.