Mary Hall of Titusville, Fla., became the guardian of her two young granddaughters around Christmas 2013 after their mother’s opiate addiction got out of control. Hall herself had just lost her job and her house, but she was determined to do the best she could for the girls. She bought a camper, parked it in a friend’s yard, and moved into it with her granddaughters and dogs. Hall soon landed a job with a catering company and started graduate school at the University of Central Florida for health services administration.
But she faced a significant roadblock that first summer: She couldn’t afford full-time child care while she was working and going to school. A friend told her about a program through the public school system in Brevard County that could help her and her family. Hall reached out to Sally Shinn, Brevard Public Schools’ liaison to the homeless, and explained her situation. Within a day, she received a tuition donation from the Brevard Schools Foundation to send her granddaughters to a local summer camp—and they’ve been able to attend every year since.
“It’s been a lifesaver,” Hall says. “That camp not only kept them occupied, but they’ve been able to do stuff that I could not have done for them.” Since 2011, the Space Coast Association of REALTORS® in Brevard County has raised $400,000 to assist homeless and at-risk students through the Brevard Schools Foundation—efforts that are driven by the dedication, passion, and leadership of REALTOR® Louise McLean, GRI, SFR, an agent with RE/MAX Solutions in Merritt Island, Fla.
McLean first learned that homelessness was a significant problem in her area when she watched a “60 Minutes” segment back in 2011 on the plight of impoverished children in Florida and other parts of the country. The U.S. Census Bureau reported 16 million children—about one in five in the U.S.—living in poverty in 2011. Of all homeless people, nearly one-third are children and youth. Those sad figures resonated with McLean as a real estate professional.
Licensed since 2004, McLean watched the foreclosure crisis unfold. She’d walk through REOs and see a child’s room, painted in bright colors with height measurements written on the wall, and wonder what happened to them. Brevard County, home of the Kennedy Space Center, was hit especially hard by the recession and the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011. According to research from the University of West Florida Office of Economic Development and Engagement, the space coast region lost a net 6,800 jobs—the highest among all 22 Florida metro areas. By the end of 2011, Brevard County had the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, according to RealtyTrac.
Shinn, who works with homeless students’ parents, saw other local businesses struggle after the shuttle program ended. Contractors, electricians, and maintenance workers couldn’t find comparable work. Jobs that once paid $30 an hour fell to $14 an hour, she says.
In 2011, McLean reached out to the Brevard Schools Foundation and found out that 964 children in the county were identified as homeless. She was floored. Immediately, McLean contacted Leah Selig, CEO of the Space Coast Association of REALTORS®. Two days later, McLean raised the homeless issue at a board of directors meeting, and they recommended she start a committee. Selig sent out a member email soliciting volunteers, and about 10 people showed up to the first Brevard’s Children in Need Committee meeting.
“I’d never spoken in front of anyone. I was a nervous wreck,” McLean says. The committee decided to send another email blast asking for donations to benefit the school foundation, and just like that, they raised $12,000. But McLean wanted to do more.
She and Selig approached the Hotel and Lodging Association to see if they’d be willing to partner on a larger-scale fundraising effort. The nearby Hilton agreed to provide the venue, and the hotel association covered the cost of food. McLean’s committee sold raffle tickets for $100 each and secured corporate sponsors. On the day of the event, McLean worried aloud to Selig: “What if no one shows up?” Ten minutes later, the banquet room was packed with 400 people. The event continues to grow: Last year’s fundraiser attracted 800 donors.
The organizers are ever mindful of the complexity of the problem they’re addressing. Students are considered homeless when they have no permanent address. The school district identified 2,262 such kids in the 2016–17 school year, nearly 3 percent of the total student enrollment. The majority—1,764—were living with their family under another relative’s roof; 228 were staying in motels; 111 were living in cars or at campgrounds; 140 were at shelters; and 19 were awaiting foster care, according to the Florida Department of Education. There are also 223 students who have been completely abandoned by their parents or whose parents died, and they’re bouncing between friends’ houses or living on the street.
“The goal is to keep something consistent in their lives,” Shinn says. “What these funds do is make school welcoming for them. It breaks down barriers. If you walk into school and you don’t have the supplies or you smell, it takes your focus away from learning.”
Most of the money raised has been used to provide food, school supplies, clothing, shoes, glasses, sports equipment, band instruments, and even toiletries so students can shower at school in the morning. Last year, the foundation was able to invite 150 homeless high school juniors and seniors on a college tour. It led to 71 graduating seniors enrolling in college this year. And, since 2011, the committee has awarded 44 college scholarships matched by the state of Florida.
Showing True Leadership
In addition to the large annual fall fundraiser, McLean has also partnered with the Hilton to host a “Project Prom” event each spring, collecting and distributing prom dresses, suits, accessories, and tickets for Brevard County students in need. This event has enabled about 850 underprivileged kids to attend proms since 2013. Then there’s the $40,000 in holiday gifts the committee has delivered to children since 2012, items on wish lists they’ve received from local organizations.
Shinn says McLean’s efforts have helped the school district better identify homeless students and decrease dropout rates, improve attendance, and reduce discipline referrals. Most recently, McLean has taken on the role of president of the newly formed Space Coast REALTORS® Charitable Foundation. The foundation plans to continue working with schools and to add helping organizations providing affordable and transitional housing.
Though Brevard County has regained jobs and economic stability with the help of expanding high-tech companies in the aerospace and other industries over the past five years, Shinn says the numbers of students counted as homeless has continued to increase because the school district has gotten better at identifying children in need. This year 2,262 children were identified as homeless, more than double the number cited when McLean first got involved.
“People assume homeless people are a certain race or that they’re addicted to drugs. But it can affect anyone,” McLean says. “If the kids know there’s good in the world, they’re going to remember that. I think that’s what it takes to break the cycle. Show them there’s something that is good on the other side.”