LYNNWOOD, Wash., August 26, 2022—In September of 2014, an Edmonds School District bus driver noticed one of his passengers drinking a jelly packet in the backseat. The student appeared frightened that someone would take it away from her. When he approached the young girl, he learned that this modest snack would be all she would have to eat until the next school day.
Disheartened to hear this, the bus driver teamed up with his colleagues to supply snacks for their 275 homeless students at the time – most of whom depended on school-supplied meals for their one, and only, meal of the day.
Currently, there are over 1,200 children in South Snohomish County that are considered homeless and part of the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act. These children may live in shelters, tents, cars, transitional housing, or other temporary housing.
When Kim Gorney heard this, she jumped into action. Gorney assembled a coalition of four parents and started a certified 501(c)3 a month later. Paid for by the Lynnwood Elks Club, her team assembled bags of food for bus drivers to distribute to food insecure children. This nonprofit would eventually become known as Washington Kids in Transition – helping over 5,000 families connect to resources such as food, housing, and clothing since 2015.
What started as a grassroots effort has since grown into a community-wide passion in collaboration with community partners and licensed social workers embedded within the Edmonds School District. Hundreds of food bags are still distributed on buses daily but the organization has grown to providing hotel/motel vouchers, and “emergency closets” offering anything from clothes to hygiene products to gift cards.
Last year Washington Kids in Transition supplied over 32,000 bags of food to children in need.
“I just couldn’t believe that there were hungry children in this area,” Kim Gorney, Executive Director for Washington Kids in Transition, told the Lynnwood Times. “I think everyone has that moment where something resonates so strongly, [that] they need to follow through. For me it was that day.”
Gorney worked as a Youth Program Manager for the State of California, where she grew up in a middle-class family with most of their basic needs met. Once she relocated to Snohomish County, after taking a job in early education, she caught her first glimpse at working with low-income families and credits this experience as one of the reasons the bus drivers’ cause hit so close to home.
“The thought that someone in this area can go hungry all night until the next day…I never realized how big food insecurities were,” Gorney said.
In many ways Washington Kids in Transition plays the role of bridging food and housing insecure families to resources in the area while providing, emergency, short-term support. This process begins with a family resource advocate or social worker filling out a request form and sending it to Washington Kids in Transition, who then determines if a family is eligible for funding. To date they have never had to turn down a request.
“Whatever a family needs to get them through an emergency is what we provide,” Gorney told the Lynnwood Times. “If a social worker walks into a house and the family has no food in their refrigerator, they come to us and get food that day.”
The same applies to housing. Washington Kids in Transition will temporarily pay for a motel or hotel for homeless families until they can get connected with one of their partners such as Volunteers of America or YMCA for more long-term assistance. Last year they paid over $500,000 in rental and utility assistance alone.
Washington Kids in Transition also opened two distribution centers in 2020, one in Lynnwood and the other in Everett, to better serve social workers and family advocates by supplying food, clothing, hygiene, toiletries, diapers, and transportation vouchers same day.
This year Counselors and Advocates will even be able to make specific requests, on behalf of homeless students, through an expansion to the organization’s emergency closets called Granted Wishes. These requests can be anything from prom tickets to sports equipment, sleeping bags to bus passes.
Snohomish County, Lynnwood, and Edmonds allocate $800,000 of ARPA funds for new McKinney-Vento program
Recently the Lynnwood City Council approved $150,000 of their American Rescue Plan Act funds to go toward Washington Kids in Transition’s new McKinney-Vento program, which rolls out this upcoming school year.
The McKinney-Vento program is for students, primarily 11 and 12 grades, transitioning to a life outside High School toward making a livable wage. The program offers three free courses – personal, professional, and financial – and offers additional financial assistance while participating students get their feet on the ground after graduating high school.
“Many [housing insecure] students depend on their teachers for a lot of things the parents usually give, in terms of going to college and life skills. We found that a lot of these kids did not have these life skills. The teachers do an amazing job but once the kids leave there’s no one to help with a lot of these major life decisions. We felt that if we could design a program that touched on what their interests were, and there was a way that they could learn a livable wage, that maybe it would increase the graduation rate,” Gorney said.
Lynnwood Council President George Hurst’s wife, Pam Hurst, has been a volunteer at Washington Kids in Transition for many years and introduced the Council President to their cause. Mrs. Hurst recommended Gorney apply for a grant with the city to utilize its ARPA funds and her application was subsequently approved by the City’s Finance Department. Mayor Christine Frizzell has also toured the Washington Kids in Transition Distribution Center in Lynnwood twice and fell in love with the cause.
The decision came to council at its July 25 Business Meeting, moved forward by Council Vice President Jim Smith and unanimously passed by the rest of Council. Edmonds City Council also approved $250,000 of its ARPA money for the program. Both cities’ contributions were matched by Snohomish County, as part of its existing ARPA program, for a total of $800,000.
“The night that they unanimously approved it I was beyond excited and so grateful,” Gorney said. “We’ve been able to provide for the students in Edmonds because we’ve received a large amount of funding, but this leveled the playing field for the students in Lynnwood.”
Gorney hopes to work with local business in the area once the program launches this fall. Specific businesses have yet to be determined.
“Our whole mission is for every student to have an equal opportunity for an education and if a homeless student, or very low-income student, aren’t feeling good about themselves, if they don’t have a safe place to sleep, or have shoes with holes in them, then they’re not going to focus on their education,” Gorney said.