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Staff pledges to aid homeless, struggling students

Date: 2/2/2010

Feb. 3, 2010.

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD -- Catherine Tansey and Carrie Fiordalice care deeply about helping struggling students at Westfield High School. They dedicate their days to helping young adults survive trauma and financial hardships as school adjustment counselors and social workers and they do it on a tiny budget.

Tansey explained she couldn't keep running to administrators for money during this trying financial times, rather, she created the Kinship Fund and partnered with community organizations to help their cause.

Lillian, 19, sat down with Reminder Publications last week, under the condition of anonymity, to share how she was able to survive with the help of the school's adjustment counselors and the Kinship Fund.

Lillian was 16 years old when she left her home three years ago. By age 17, she was working three jobs, attending Westfield High School fulltime and had her own apartment. She was far from the typical high school graduate in the Class of 2009.

"My father moved to Washington [state] my freshman year [of high school] and my mom stayed [here] to sell the house," Lillian explained. "She drank [alcohol] and I had a huge problem with it. I was the only one [in my family] who confronted her because I couldn't take it anymore."

Lillian explained that after the confrontation with her mother she stayed with a neighbor and continued to attend high school before meeting Tansey. She helped Lillian to find a subsidized apartment, pay her class dues, doctor's appointments and even groceries with the school's Kinship Fund.

"She was courageous," Tansey said of Lillian choosing to leave her parents' home and live on her own. "She had a maturity about her [even though] she was young."

Tansey explained that before Lillian, the school's counselors "didn't have a [concrete] way to help" students such as she. The school has since partnered with the non-profit Domus Inc. to find eligible students housing.

Ann Lentini, executive director of Domus Inc., explained she helps students obtain emergency housing and is currently working to obtain an apartment building strictly for young adults.

"[It's all about] how we protect our youngest and give them the opportunity to move on with their lives," Lentini said, adding that if not for DOMUS, students would be homeless.

"Through [Lillian], we were able to think systematically about how to [get] them [the type of assistance they needed]," Fiordalice explained.

Tansey said in-school counseling is often not enough for students such as Lillian. "They need to achieve something substantial ... we had to create circumstances [such as the partnership with Domus] to help them," she added.

Fiordalice cautioned, "We're not here to help kids live independently." She added those teens such as Lillian with extenuating circumstances -- students whose parents are addicts, have died or been abandoned -- are left by state organizations to decide their own fates, without much support.

Lillian agreed, adding that once her parents had sold their house and wanted her to move to Washington. She explained the Department of Social Services left her to make the decision and she could no longer handle living with an alcoholic mother.

"I lived with a friend for six months [after my parents moved]," Lillian recalled. "It was hard being in someone else's space."

She said she wouldn't have known where to turn or how to become self-sufficient without Tansey and Fiordalice's assistance.

"I had a hard time going to school my senior year but one of them was always there for me," Lillian recalled.

She said she has since graduated from high school and plans to enter into a trade. Lillian has also bought a home with her boyfriend and still has a close relationship with Tansey.

Tansey and Fiordalice are conducting a Prom Gown Extravaganza next month so they may continue helping other teens at the high school. All proceeds will go to the Kinship Fund.

Tansey said she has a goal to collect 300 gently used prom gowns for the fundraiser. Those wishing to donate prom gowns may bring them to the main office at Westfield High School, 177 Montgomery Rd.

The Prom Gown Extravaganza will take place in the high school cafeteria on March 19 from 3 to 8 p.m. and on March 20 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Monetary donations for the Kinship Fund may be sent to the Kinship Fund, c/o Catherine Tansey, 177 Montgomery Rd., Westfield MA 01085.