Twice a week, Vanessa Prospere’s daughters climb a wooden staircase in the white house on Copperstone Court to get help on their homework.
They walk down a blue hallway, passing hand-painted pictures that read “Stay Strong” and “Imagine,” and into a room with a yellow bookshelf and yellow curtains.
There, they talk, laugh and get homework help from professional teachers for about an hour.
The girls, 6 and 11, are happy living in the house in Rockville, Prospere said, but it isn’t their home.
For now, they don’t have a home.
The Prosperes have spent a month living with five other families at Stepping Stones Shelter. The county refers homeless families there when they have no other place to go, said Denise Fredericks, executive director of Stepping Stones.
For the children in the shelter, the twice-a-week tutoring provided by Montgomery County public schools teachers provides a sense of normalcy, said Connie Edsinger, one of the tutors and a computer teacher at Charles Drew Elementary School.
“It is a nice place to go to and sit and be kids, and not have to worry about adult stuff,” Edsinger said. “With the situation they are in, they are often dealing with adult situations.”
The school system pays Edsinger and other teachers $17 an hour to go to four homeless shelters in the county twice a week and tutor the children who find themselves there, said Jevoner L. Adams, residency administrator for the school counseling, residency and international admissions unit of the Office of Student Services. The school system received an $83,000 grant from the Maryland State Department of Education to provide services to homeless students, Adams said.
Along with Stepping Stones, the tutoring is provided at Greentree, Seneca Heights Apartments and the Betty Ann Krahnke Center.
The investment and partnership are worth it for the relief the program provides, Fredericks said.
“We have seen how it impacts the lives of our parents, who are buried with other things and responsibilities, and are trying to manage everything they have going on,” Fredericks said.
Debbie Tivvis, who has helped out at Stepping Stones for five years, said she has kept coming back because of the joy it brings her and the children.
Tivvis, who assists teachers at Charles Drew, recently bought a pumpkin for one of the girls in the shelter so the girl could complete a homework assignment that required her to buy a pumpkin, make up a story and name the pumpkin the same as the main character.
“She was so excited,” Tivvis said. “We are able to be a friend, and just be there if they need us. Everyone needs an extra hug sometimes. I thank the Lord for what I have. And what is a little pumpkin?”
When a family becomes homeless, the parents meet with school staff members to determine what school their children will go to, Adams said.
They could choose to go to the school they attended before they became homeless, or go to a school in the new area of their shelter, she said. The school system will bus them from their temporary home to their school of choice.
Of the estimated 147,000 students enrolled in Montgomery County public schools last year, parents reported 716 to be homeless, Adams said.
As of Friday, parents reported 541 children to be homeless this year.
Children who are poor, including homeless, are twice as likely to repeat a grade in school, be expelled or suspended, or drop out of high school, according to data collected by Stepping Stones and The Dwelling Place.
Half of homeless children change school three times during the year, according to the data.
The shelter helps Prospere’s children stay focused on education, Prospere said, while she focuses on getting the family back on their feet.
“They ask me, ‘Mommy, is tutoring coming today?’ ” she said. “Even though the situation is not ideal, they love it.”
Prospere, 32, is looking for a full-time job. She is about a semester away from her associate’s degree, and she has held a steady job before, she said. She moved into the shelter after facing family issues.
She said she considers her stay at Stepping Stones a blessing in disguise.
There are many misconceptions about homeless families — that they are all lazy or on drugs, Fredericks said — but that is not the case for the majority of families who pass through Stepping Stones.
“There are two root causes, one being generational poverty, where we have families that have not ever been stable,” Fredericks said. “Then there is a situation that people have fallen on difficult circumstances.”
Prospere said she wants people to realize how easy it is to quickly fall into hard times.
“Tomorrow is not promised to you,” Prospere said. “You don’t know where you’ll be tomorrow. Your life changes in a split second.”