This Life: What hurting teens in school may need most: A listener who cares

Kara Thompson stands outside her office window where she leaves words of encouragement on sticky notes for her students at Stockbridge High School. Thompson, site coordinator of Communities In Schools, has been nominated for a 2018 Champions Award. Contributed

Kara Thompson stands outside her office window where she leaves words of encouragement on sticky notes for her students at Stockbridge High School. Thompson, site coordinator of Communities In Schools, has been nominated for a 2018 Champions Award. Contributed

In any given school week, Kara Thompson sees as many as 38 students who need her help. Sometimes the need is as simple as a word of encouragement and other times as complicated as finding them a place to stay.

As often as she can, she does whatever it takes to fulfill those needs. However and whenever she can.

At just 29, Thompson, a site coordinator for Communities In Schools, is little more than a decade removed from the vast majority of the students – 14- to 18-year-olds – assigned to her caseload at Stockbridge High School. And except for the teen angst she experienced growing up, she has little in common with them.

While the vast majority of her charges come from troubled and dysfunctional households, Kara Thompson grew up in a solidly middle-class family with both parents present.

And yet by all accounts she is able to connect with both her students and often their parents in ways unimaginable, because Kara Thompson has heart. She cares.

She was tapped to coordinate the Stockbridge High program back in June, one month after earning her bachelor of science degree in human services from Mercer University and after hearing about the program from Glenda Harris, executive director of Communities In Schools in Henry County.

Communities in Schools, founded in 1972, is one of those programs that does a lot of good but we don't hear enough about. And yet, for every student who is unmotivated, who feels discouraged because of being hungry or sick or are homeless, there are eight others who manage to overcome those barriers because of people like Kara Thompson.

And that’s not all. Often their parents and siblings get a lift, too.

RELATED | Meet five Atlanta students who turned their lives around

Stockbridge’s program is one of two in Henry County. Additional sites are under consideration for next year. In all, there are 233 elementary, middle and high school sites across the state serving 128,000 students who have been identified, for one reason or another, as being at risk of dropping out of school.

Ninety-one percent do not. They stay and graduate. Is it any wonder Georgia’s high school graduation rate has been on a steady uptick.

State School Superintendent Richard Woods credited the most recent increase to school officials personalizing education for each individual student, making sure those students are encouraged to stay in the classroom and are motivated.

There’s that word again.

Thompson, who also attended Henry County schools, knows what it’s like to lack the motivation to get an education. She’s been there.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

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“I grew up in a very wonderful, stable environment,” she said. “My parents were business owners who were very involved in the community. They gave me everything but I think I was just rebellious by nature.”

Thompson failed the 10th-grade year and after passing out several times during her senior year was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, a heart condition.

When she meets students, Thompson resists the urge to pry into their private lives. She lets the students decide what they want to share and what they do not.

“Every day I walk away with a smile but there are days when I walk away crying, because of the situations that these kids come from and the things they have to deal with through no fault of their own,” she said.

Jemariya Patterson was one of them.

RELATED | Atlanta schools spend $9 million to help students affected by cheating

“She let me know that she was really angry,” Thompson said.

She gave Jemariya a notebook and suggested she keep an angry journal. Each time she returned to Thompson’s office she shared a little bit more about herself. She was living in a hotel room with her mom and four siblings. They were barely getting by.

Jemariya Patterson, left, is pictured with Kara Thompson, site coordinator of Communities In School at Stockbridge High School. Patterson credits Thompson with turning her life around. Photo by Gracie Bonds Staples/AJC.COM

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Thompson called Jemariya’s mom, who for months had been “screaming at the top of her lungs” for help but no one would listen and, worse, offer to help.

All of the family’s belongings had been placed in storage only to be lost in an auction because she couldn’t afford to pay the rent on the unit.

Thompson promised she’d do everything she could to help and connected her with a rental company.

After weeks of back and forth, the rental company called. They had a home available. Thompson went to check it out.

RELATED | More than 30,000 students in Georgia face homelessness

Just as they’d been put out of their hotel room, the family moved in with only the air mattresses and sleeping bags Thompson could find in her garage.

The next day she got busy rallying the community for furnishings and other household items. Local churches and members of the CIS staff and board donated beds, clothes, a kitchen table, a sofa and other household items, enough to furnish the entire home.

Despite financial counseling a church provided her, the mom lost the home after just three months.

You won’t believe what happened next. Come back Thursday and I’ll tell you how she regained her footing and managed to keep Jemariya on track to graduate in 2020.

Communities In Schools of Georgia 2018 Champions Award Celebration

11 a.m. Feb. 19. $100. Georgia Aquarium Oceans Ballroom, 225 Baker St. N.W., Atlanta, Ga. 30313. CISGA.ORG

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