Kalispell homeless education liaison first to receive national award

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National Homeless Liaison of the Year Nichole Heyer, at the Heart Locker in Kalispell on Monday. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Nichole Heyer has been named the first Homeless Education Liaison of the Year by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Heyer has been the homeless education liaison for Kalispell Public Schools and the Evergreen School District since 2015. Additionally, she oversees the nonprofit HEART program, which encompasses the HEART Locker, HEART Markets and, most recently, the Locker Learning Center, to provide students affected by homelessness with access to free clothing, undergarments, shoes, hygiene products, food, snacks and school supplies. The learning center is open three days a week for high school students to drop in and hang out, use computers and the internet, or create in a studio space.

A monetary fund also aids students or families with immediate needs.

“What we’ve built here together, it’s really unique and important, and being recognized is pretty cool,” Heyer said. She views the award as a reflection of the district’s and community’s continued support of students struggling with homelessness.

Heather Denny, state coordinator for Homeless Education at the Office of Public Instruction, has worked closely with Heyer and said she nominated her because she “exemplifies the best of Montana’s educators.

“She is incredibly hard-working. She is dedicated to her students, families, and her community. Her focus is on helping each student to succeed.”

A homeless education liaison works directly with students and families who are experiencing homelessness to obtain the services, support and resources necessary to access public education. This may include assistance with immediate enrollment, providing transportation to and from school and completing paperwork to get free or reduced meals.

Denny noted the HEART program as a standout example of Heyer’s dedication to go above and beyond the duties of the homeless liaison position.

“The HEART Program provides people in Kalispell with a tangible way to support children and families in crisis. They know that the focus of the program is on helping children to stay in school, to succeed and to move on to college, careers, and as productive members of the community. The students and families who are helped by the program are treated with respect and dignity. Nichole loves every one of the students that she works with, and she is a tireless advocate for them,” Denny said.

“Nichole is a part-time employee of the district. She’s also a wife and mother, a graduate student, and runs this incredible nonprofit. She is the kind of person who sees a need in her community and does everything she can to meet that need,” she added.

Denny said the HEART Locker is a great example of how the work of one community can impact others. The Locker’s donations reach not just students in Kalispell and Evergreen, but kids in neighboring communities and as far away as Browning.

“And I frequently refer liaisons in neighboring communities to Nichole when they have a homeless or foster student in need of clothing or other items. Nichole is one of those people who will never say no to a student who needs help.” Denny said.

Heyer said the unique part about the HEART program initiatives is that these services aren’t typically found in rural communities.

“In rural areas you don’t have the breadth and depth of what urban areas offer,” Heyer said, noting that although the numbers of homeless students may be lower in rural communities, it can be a worse situation due to a lack of services. “The school district decided we should create our own resources.”

She said schools, whether large or small, are focused on graduation rates, which reveal student populations at risk of dropping out. The number of students eligible for free and reduced meals, which is on the rise, is also an indicator that a student may be facing homelessness, defined by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act as lacking a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence.

“Students who are homeless are at the highest risk of dropping out, period,” Heyer said. “When schools look at graduation rates, they see they need to put supports in place because these kids are slipping through the cracks. At a minimum, we need to get kids through high school so they can get a chance and break the cycle of poverty.”

The number of students in grades K-12 who are defined as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in Kalispell and Evergreen school districts has hovered around 350 over the past few years.

As awareness of the extent of student homelessness spread, the community began banding together to brainstorm solutions and donate time, money and resources.

“We have a community that really wants these kids to succeed,” Heyer said.

“We care. It’s not a magic recipe. We’re doing whatever we can to support these students.”

Heyer will be recognized on Oct. 29 at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth conference in California.

Association President Dave Schrandt said one of the reasons for creating an award honoring homeless education liaisons is to recognize “what wonderful work they do for students, families, schools and communities.” He added that homeless education liaisons are “here to break down barriers and get assistance to students and families in need.”

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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