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Closed Nashville school transformed into campus helping kids experiencing homelessness

HERO Center
Posted at 10:44 AM, Jul 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-29 22:53:43-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — This time of year, big box trucks are always full of back to school supplies. While these items will end up on shelves, this location isn't a store. It's actually an abandoned Metro Nashville school.

"Here they come! Pants and shirts for the kids," said Cindy Pramuk of the Assistance League Nashville.

You might call it, an out-of-the-box concept. The once empty Buena Vista Elementary in North Nashville is full once again.

"It’s fabulous to have everything consolidated into one space," said Catherine Knowles, the Homeless Education Program Coordinator for Metro Nashville Public Schools. "We have a fully functioning clothes closet, with socks, with underwear, with shoes, we have a food pantry."

The school complex has been re-purposed into a home base for the Homeless Education Resource Office, or HERO. Although, they serve more than just those who fit that label.

"It includes anyone who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence -- and what that looks like is about 89 percent of the kids that we serve qualify as homeless because they live with friends and relatives," Knowles said.

In Metro Schools alone, nearly 4,000 students qualify as having irregular or inadequate housing. Nationwide, it's 1.5 million children. In all likelihood, those numbers are actually much higher.

"Most families are not waltzing into the office and declaring 'we are homeless, so what can you do to help us,' so it’s something that families don’t necessarily seek out help for," Knowles said.

While MNPS can't exactly fix the city's affordable housing crisis, they can make sure kids have the resources they need. Of course, a task that big does require helping hands.

Groups like Assistance League Nashville volunteer their time, money and muscle to distribute new school uniforms.

"It’s very rewarding for us to be able to reach out to our community and do something for the children," Pramuk said.

But the goal is to dress these students from their heads to their soles, which is where the non-profit Soles 4 Souls comes in.

"It opened our eyes to the fact, that there is a huge need," said Buddy Teaster, CEO of Soles 4 Souls. "These kids, maybe they’ve never had a pair of new shoes, if they have, they’ve never felt like they belong. And suddenly they get these great shoes and they feel like the rest of the kids. They say things like 'I finally feel like I belong and I deserve to be here.'"

Tiffany Turner is in charge of distributing shoes for every student enrolled in the program.

"We make sure that color and style vary so that all of the children don’t have on the same shoe, because that can be just as detrimental as not having a good pair of shoes," said Turner, Vice President of Outreach for Soles 4 Souls.

If you think for a moment that these shoes don't make a difference, think again.

"When you hand out a pair of purple, fuzzy vans to an eight-year-old girl, that just makes her day," said Knowles.

"My little girl she actually got a purple pair of vans, and it's like fuzzy on the top. She went to sleep with them on, she literally fell asleep the whole night because they were vans," said Katelyn Franklin.

Franklin and her three kids escaped to Middle Tennessee a few years back.

"My ex-husband now was physically abusive to me, I couldn’t do it any longer. I had to do something better," said Franklin.

Life was better until a few months ago, when she lost her job, her housing, and for just a moment, her hope.

"Some people just want to give up. I will be honest, I did say that last night...but I said I can't. I have got to keep that faith coming. I know God has something better for me and my kids," she said.

While Katelyn still has a lot to worry about — bouncing from hotels, to shelters, to wherever will let them stay — at least school supplies won't be one of them.

"If you need uniforms, little snack bags, whatever it is down the line. They have come through 100 percent," said Franklin.

This is why, this out-of-the-box idea to transform an old school into something so much more, seems to be the perfect fit.

"These kids, and their families, they need all of our help," said Teaster.

"If we can help these kids make their mark, make their statement and just feel like…like a kid and excited about what they have on, then we’re doing our piece of it. We can’t do all of it, but we’re doing our piece of it," Turner said.

So far, Soles 4 Souls has distributed 50,000 pairs of shoes in Nashville, and want to expand its program nationwide. They hope within 5-6 years, they can donate shoes to all 1.5 million children in America experiencing homelessness.

If you'd like to learn more about the 4EveryKid program, click here.

If you'd like to learn more about the HERO program, click here.