by Deb Seminary

She has endless energy, doesn’t take no for an answer and is passionate about every child getting an education. This is Carrie Grosz, and her mission is caring for “her kids” in the Carrie’s Kids program and throughout Bismarck.

Grosz is the Local Liaison for the Students in Transition program in the Bismarck Public School District. She has been in that position since 2003, part of a mandate by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 that every school district should employ a homeless liaison.

Grosz is also the most visible member of an eight person task force created in 2006 out of a ‘40 days of Community’ program at Trinity Lutheran Church. “They adopted me, in my position (with the Bismarck Public Schools), and their whole point was to help the community,” explained Grosz. “When we started, I never dreamed it would be what it is today.”

The Carrie’s Kids program allows Grosz to supply school-aged children with basic needs their parents or guardians may not have the time or resources to provide. “Carrie’s Kids came as a blessing to me, because I can get things like blow dryers, medical vouchers and personal hygiene items for kids that need them,” said Grosz. “In the district, my job is to locate and identify children who are homeless and remove the barriers that prevent education. Those barriers could be transportation, free meals, or school supplies. Carrie’s Kids helps me meet other needs like coats and gloves that you can’t run through a school budget. That’s what I like. I have a list of people I can call to make it happen and it is a beautiful thing.”

Grosz wants all children to get an education, and with some it is very hard and there are many issues standing in the way. At times it is difficult to find out who is responsible for a particular child when the school needs to know who to contact regarding the student.

“When you deal with people in crisis, every situation is unique,” said Grosz. “I wish it could be the same thing twice, because then you would know (how to deal with it). There are different numbers of kids, different living situations, living with grandma, an aunt or a friend. My first thing is to solve the problem and create a plan.”

To do this, explained Grosz, she often calls on other community organizations. “We serve as a last line of defense and only have so many resources.” Grosz said. “We need every agency we currently have in Bismarck, and it would be nice to have a few more. Carrie’s Kids isn’t here to replace any agency, we’re here to help meet the needs that can’t be met by the other agencies. There’s an incredible amount of coordination and teamwork that goes on, and I appreciate absolutely every one of them. I can’t say any one agency is better than the rest. People sometimes ask me where they should donate and I tell them to give where your heart is.”

Where are the homeless?
In warmer climates, the homeless are more visible – sleeping in parks, under bridges and in cars. In North Dakota that is not very realistic. In addition, there are a variety of definitions of who is homeless.

The McKinney-Vento Act defines the homeless, in part, as individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. “We have a lot of families doubled up here,” said Grosz. “It’s not uncommon to find 20 people living in a double-wide trailer.”

“Under McKinney-Vento, I can keep kids at the same school no matter how many times they move within the district,” explained Grosz. “It is vital to have continuity of care and it is so hard when they move around a lot. School is the best place for them to be. It’s a safe environment, they get two free meals, some stability and consistency in their life and the chance to make a difference in their own world.”

Diane Zainhofsky, executive director of the Abused Adult Resource Center agrees. “It is important for them to have some consistency and sometimes school is the only thing,” she said. “We are so grateful for Carrie’s Kids.”

In October of 2009, Grosz dealt with a child who was already in his fourth school district for the school year. “That’s not just moving down the street, that is county to county or state to state,” said Grosz. “Maybe for the past 45 days, they might have only been in school for 10. How can they reach their proper educational levels?”

Imagine living a life of constant transition; moving from place to place, never knowing where you’ll be the next night. “I had one mom ask me, ‘why do I have to live like you?,’” said Grosz. “She made me think a little bit. I told her she didn’t have to live like me, but I did want her kids to go to school. She asked me ‘why, why is that important to you?’”

Grosz explained the education of children matters because she doesn’t want a child to grow up and be ripped off on a lease or pay extra for a car that doesn’t run because they can’t read the contract. In addition, if a student wants gainful employment that will make a difference in their life, education will help them reach that goal. She knows an educational experience will aid in better choices in the future.

When Grosz started her job with the school district, her goal was to have every student graduate. Now, she feels successful if she gets students through their first week of school and each week that follows. She wants every child to have the ability to read, write and do math.

Making it work
Grosz appreciates the way her jobs with Bismarck Public Schools and Carrie’s Kids complement each other. “When I talk about my job and Carrie’s Kids, it’s like I have a split personality,” said Grosz. “I have a full-time job and run a full-time ministry. I love them both and I couldn’t do one without the other.”

It is no surprise every minute of Grosz’s time is filled. She is a wife and mother, and also squeezes in activities like exercise and sewing.

“She is amazing,” said Zainhofsky. “For a young woman that has taken such an interest in the homeless kids in Bismarck-Mandan – she has put her heart and soul into it.”

Grosz also organizes many events for ‘her kids’ in the program. There is a Boy’s Club and a Girls Club, where students spend time talking about the importance of having dreams and setting goals. The boys recently went sledding, which gave some the opportunity to show their leadership skills.

Carrie’s Kids is hosting its fifth Teenage Makeover in March. One of the goals of the event is to motivate kids to reconnect with their education. There will also be attorneys present to talk to kids about legal issues.

“Life happens,” explained Grosz. “Teenage Makeover offers addiction counselors, budgeting and banking advice. It’s not just about hair, makeup and personal hygiene. If you’re a teenager in Bismarck and you don’t have money, it’s cold outside, and you have no place to live, what do you do? How do you know who to talk to? When kids reach a certain age, people lose compassion. If I say I have a kindergartner who has no place to live, people dig deep. If I say I have an 18-year-old who has no place to live, people say ‘get a job.’ Sometimes it’s not that easy.”

The program’s Caring for Kids event is also held for kids ages 3 to 21. It is an opportunity for kids to get a hair cut, school supplies, and personal hygiene products. The event is based on the children’s’ immediate needs.

“It’s not just for those that are experiencing homelessness, it’s also for those that may be teetering on the edge,” said Grosz. “If we can help them out to keep them in their home, I would rather do that than meet them on the street any day.”

Making these events happen takes many volunteers. The Carrie’s Kids task force, consisting of eight people (including Grosz) from Trinity Lutheran Church, works in conjunction with a team of people Grosz knows and trusts. This is important to Grosz because some topics and events are very sensitive when dealing with kids and their families.

Taking Care
Grosz admits it is hard not to get emotionally connected with some of the people she helps. “So far this year I’ve met with over 650 kids and I only have about 160 in school,” she said. “If a child is not coming to school, they can’t learn. Everybody has a purpose and I want every kid to obtain greatness. There are so many amazing kids out there. I have a young man right now, who is an Einstein. I’m floored by his gift of knowledge.”

Keeping kids in school in the largest school district in North Dakota is a monumental task, but Grosz is up to the challenge. “I just do what I can and pray that somewhere along the line I made a difference. I have kids that hate me. I have parents that yell at me. I do have kids that thank me and hug me, and I appreciate that. I’m here for the kids. I want every kid to go to school. I want every child to have an opportunity to be successful.”

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