by Virginia Lynne Anderson
Meet Kate Kennedy, Champion for Vulnerable Children
She had an idea that grew into a school
WE ALL KNOW that Decatur is a great place to live, work and play. One of the reasons is the community’s lesser known quiet helpers and heroes who live among us. Every day, every hour, someone in Decatur is looking out for other people by helping kids, helping elders — helping each other. Decatur Living celebrates these ordinary people who became extraordinary by taking action, be they kids or adults. They, even more than our beautiful homes, streetscapes, fantastic restaurants and indie shops, make Decatur the wonderful place we all call home.
Who makes life better for you or others in Decatur? Please share that inspiring person with us.
Our first hero is Kate Kennedy, whose compassion and sensitivity toward others led her to help kids who do not have permanent homes gain access to the same kind of high- quality education her own four children have enjoyed. Read on to see what motivates Kennedy and how she became a champion for vulnerable children.
Kate Kennedy knows a thing or two about the difficulties of getting things done during the day with kids in tow. She has four children. And while three of them are now in school and one has graduated from college, she remembers well when her kids were little.
“I know how hard it is to get things done, like go to the DMV, the grocery store anything,” said Kennedy, who originally hails from Birmingham but has called Decatur home for decades.
From this experience as a mother came an idea. At the time, she was a member at St. Luke Episcopal Church on Peachtree Street and a volunteer with its Crossroads Ministries, which serves unhoused people in downtown Atlanta.
“I was in proximity to people look- ing for housing, and we started seeing an uptick in the number of kids who came in with parents looking for help,” Kennedy remembers from 2015. “What we also noticed was that many of the kids were school age.”
Kids accompanying parents as they sought shelter, food or help with jobs meant that the kids were not in school.
“We decided that was a problem,” Kennedy said. Kids who do not have regular housing face a host of problems, but one of the big- gest is that they often miss a lot of school.
“It’s a tremendous barrier they face,” Kennedy said. The list of problems includes low language exposure and not being prepared for the classroom educationally or socially.
“Some of them have never had a friend before,” she said.
Several volunteers agreed. People from Crossroads and the Howard School added input and suggestions.
“What if we took a small group of children, tried to provide education for them and really made a difference?” asked Kennedy.
Kennedy is not an educator by training, but she was determined.
“I came to it more from the social services side,” she said. “But we just started reaching out to people.”
Kennedy became the fundraiser, securing more than 400 individual donors and one major “angel donor” who provided a challenge grant. The Howard School volunteered staff to perform assessments on the children. Educators came forward with idea.
And in 2018, the Boyce L. Ansley School at St. Luke Episcopal school opened its doors to 12 students. This year, the school has grown to include two full-time teachers (one kindergarten, one pre-K) and two full-time teacher assistants for the 15 kindergartners and 12 pre-K students.
Kennedy and company were amazed at the changes they saw in the first-year students in 2018.
“It changed them. They all grew,” she said. Many had not been familiar with books. They didn’t know how to walk in a line or to sit in a story circle.
“We saw them go from using a book as a building block to sitting in a bean bag chair and reading it on their own.”
An added benefit is the consistency that helped the parents too. With time on their hands without children in tow, parents were able to secure jobs and to find housing.
“Ninety percent of our families were able to find housing that first year,” Kennedy said.
That said, she is aware families need ongoing support. “The kids live difficult lives. They need a community coming together behind them,” she said.
Kennedy told the story of a little girl whose parents work full-time, but different shifts. The mother wakes the girl at 4 a.m. to ride a bus with her to work where she hands the daughter off to her father, who is finishing his shift.
“Then they go back to the shelter to get her ready for school,” Kennedy said.
The Decatur community “has really come together to support this school” so that children like this little girl can have a place to learn, a place where emotional and physical needs can be met.