Amanda Hamm, Kyrene School District community education and outreach services manager, shows off a holiday gift donation program for needy students, wherein community members can come to the district

Ari Cohn/AFN

The nearly 200 homeless Ahwatukee Foothills grade-school students in the Kyrene School District won't have to skip Thanksgiving dinner this year, thanks to a coalition of local schools, businesses, churches and service organizations.

The school district, along with groups like the Ahwatukee Foothills Family YMCA and the Ahwatukee Foothills Chamber of Commerce, has invited those students and their families to attend a donated Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, Nov. 25, said Sheila Coonen of Connecting to Serve, a community service organization that brings like-minded groups together.

School officials are seeing a rise in the level of student homelessness, said Amanda Hamm, community education and outreach services manager for the Kyrene School District, which encompasses Ahwatukee Foothills in addition to parts of Chandler and Tempe.

"Our numbers of homeless in the area are growing significantly," Hamm said. "What we're seeing is families who have never had a need and don't know what services are out there. They are not prepared for that."

All told, the district has about 430 homeless students who mainly are "couch surfing," living with their families in the spare rooms of relatives and friends, or at shelters. About 195 are in schools in Ahwatukee Foothills, she said.

"The homeless population looks just like you and me. It could literally be any person at any time," Hamm said.

The No Child Left Behind Act federal law mandates that children who have become homeless are eligible to be bussed back to their original school, she said.

"With a child in crisis, you need to provide stability," Hamm said. "During that time of crisis is when we provide support for these families."

The district also is hosting a holiday gift donation drive called "Winter Wonderland" for needy students. Potential donors can stop by district headquarters, at the northwest corner of Warner and Kyrene roads, pick a tag with a gift suggestion on it, and then buy the gift and donate it to a needy student. The gifts have to be turned in by Dec. 8.

On Dec. 11, each homeless child will be allowed to pick two gifts.

Suggestions include skateboards, nail polishing kits and board games.

"Items for teens are the most needed," Hamm said.

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