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Inside Woodlawn Ep. 6: Helping families in need

Mary Evans' entire job is to help Woodlawn families with whatever they need from rent to food. But like everything at Woodlawn, gentrification is changing her role.

PORTLAND, Ore. — When Yessica Becerra enrolled her son Miguel in Woodlawn Elementary School as a kindergarten student six years ago, she had some doubts.

Woodlawn was designated as a failing school by the state and the school’s test scores were among the bottom 5% in Oregon.

“I was afraid at the beginning, but they have a transition program for the summer for the first time in kindergarten. Miguel loved it and I saw how they treated my kid and I said, ‘Yes, this is the school for him,’” said Becerra.

Mary Evans was running the kindergarten transition program at Woodlawn and has become a very important person to the Becerra family.

“She’s like an angel for us. Like, she helped us in any situation,” said Becerra.

When the family saved enough money to move out of Becerra’s mom’s house and into their own place, they had no furniture. Their first call was to Evans.

“I said, ‘Yessica, let's go to the community warehouse. This is a place that you can get furniture and beds and everything you need for your family and they do not charge you,’” said Evans, whose role has since expanded to family coordinator at Woodlawn.

Evans received special training to take the Becerra family to the community warehouse, and even transported some of their furniture in her own car.

“She helped us to find everything… the mattress, a bed, couches, pans, forks, everything,” said Becerra.

Evans describes her job as helping families with whatever they need from rental assistance, finding them a place to live or making sure they have food at home.

“So, whatever needs a Woodlawn family or any family that contacts me might need, my job is to help them,” said Evans.

Additionally, Evans runs a food pantry out of the Woodlawn cafeteria every Wednesday for anyone in the community who needs food. She goes shopping for children who need clothes and oversees the Portland Backpack Program at Woodlawn, which gives kids bags of food every Friday, so they have food on the weekends.

She was hired as the family coordinator in 2014 by principal Andrea Porter-Lopez, paid for as part of a $1 million School Improvement Grant awarded to Woodlawn by the federal government.

“We just knew we needed a link between families and school, especially when it came to needs beyond what happens during the school day,” said Porter-Lopez.

But just as gentrification has changed almost everything at Woodlawn, it has changed Evans’ position too.

“My role has shifted. Families still need help paying rent and they still need help keeping utilities turned on. But what changed is, they don't live in our neighborhood now. They live in the numbers, or they live in Vancouver,” said Evans.

More than half the families at Woodlawn can’t afford to live in the neighborhood so they live in less expensive areas, like Gresham and Vancouver, and drive their children to school every day.

“I am a firm believer that Portland is a city that replaces black people with ‘Black Lives Matter' signs. It is so true in the neighborhoods that are being gentrified,” said Evans.

Evans said it’s sad to see families who can no longer afford to live near the school have to move.

“Portland has shifted, prices have increased to live, housing prices have increased. Even little neighborhood restaurants, prices have increased. And so, families whose jobs have not changed and whose incomes haven't increased, are being pushed out. They have to live somewhere where they can support their family,” said Evans.

Woodlawn is no longer a failing school or receiving federal school improvement grant money.

The school does receive Title I funding, which is federal money given to schools with high numbers of students living in poverty. That’s how Evans’ job is now funded.

But the numbers are changing. According to state data, five years ago, 84% of students were on free and reduced lunch, while this year it’s 69%.

“It's quite possible that we'll lose positions like Mary’s. What we do each year when we find out what our staffing will be is prioritize what we need to help kids and families be successful. And right now, her position rises to the top,” said Porter-Lopez.

Both women agree, less need is a good thing, but statistics and numbers don’t always tell the whole story. They worry about families struggling to make it.

“It makes me sad for the families that will fall between the cracks and still need help. They’ll still be here and not seeing a familiar face to help them with the needs that they have,” said Evans.

In the meantime, Evans will keep helping the families who need it.

Last month, the Becerras were hit with a surprise notice to vacate over noise complaints from the tenant living underneath them.

Becerra said many of the so-called violations were when her sons were at school or the family wasn’t home.

“I started crying. Like, what am I going to do now? Like I don't have the money to pay for the deposit and to move. It made me cry,” said Becerra.

One of her first calls was Evans, who started contacting the apartment complex, legal aide and other agencies to help.

And when the family was finally forced to move, Evans helped find them secure money for a deposit.

“[I would have] probably been under a bridge [without her] because she helped us so much. She helped us so much, with food, with resources in the community, finding our place, resources that can help us legally,” said Becerra.

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About Inside Woodlawn:

KGW investigative reporter Cristin Severance and photojournalist Gene Cotton were granted remarkable access to spend the 2019-2020 school year chronicling life inside Woodlawn Elementary School in Northeast Portland. Their reporting offers a rich view of how teachers, administrators, school staff and parents overcome many challenges to serve students. Join us as KGW News goes Inside Woodlawn.

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