Jump start a life

John Simmons | Aug 24, 2018

Recent university graduate Jordyn Roark remembers experiencing homelessness.

There's a powerful reason why, at 23 years old, Jordyn Roark has become such a staunch advocate for addressing the problem of homelessness among college students. When she was a high school senior looking to go to college, she faced the same issue.

“I strongly believe in calling young people who are going through what I did ‘students experiencing homelessness’ rather than ‘homeless students,’” says Roark. “I feel that homelessness is an experience and not an identity.”

Roark graduated from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in May 2018. She now works as marketing and community outreach coordinator for the United Way of Robeson County in North Carolina. Two types of students experience homelessness, she explains: those whose families are homeless and those (identified as “unaccompanied homeless youth”) who – for reasons including physical or sexual abuse, constant conflict or substance abuse – have fled their homes and no longer live with their parents.

Despite little coverage in the media, homelessness among students is a rapidly growing problem, Roark says, citing a recent study by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago showing that 3.5 million young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 experienced homelessness in the past 12 months. Of these, nearly a third were enrolled in college or another educational institution. Statistics from the same study show that homelessness is especially acute among unmarried young people with children and LGBT, African American, and Hispanic youth.

Wanting to make a personal contribution in tackling the issue, Roark began developing a pilot program to help students experiencing homelessness make a successful transition to college life.

“There is (U.S.) federal funding to support their education,” she says, “but no resources available to get them things like bedding, towels and toiletries and laundry baskets.”

Working with Lynn Fuqua, homeless liaison for the Public Schools of Robeson County, Roark identified four high school seniors who were experiencing homelessness and who soon would be attending college. She then tuned to Kiwanis for funding support.
Each November, the Kiwanis Club of Robeson-Lumberton accepts grant requests from individuals and organizations needing funding. Grant money is raised through the club’s annual summer golf tournament and its November pancake festival. (The club also finances two annual scholarships for deserving students to attend a local community or technical college and one scholarship to attend a four-year college.)  Roark’s application for funding was one of 11 approved applications out of 25 submitted.

“We were very pleased to accept Jordyn's application,” says Little. “Her request for funds – and the need it addressed – definitely stood out. Among the many requests we received, there wasn't another application even remotely like it.”

Items collected for distribution among students experiencing homelessness at the University of North Carolina in Pembroke. Armed with the nearly US$200 per student she received, Roark was able to provide much-needed essentials such as comforters, sheets, mattress pads, throw blankets, tote bags, laundry baskets, shampoo, hair conditioner, razors, body wash, book bags and much more. Not only do the supplies take care of basic personal and school needs, but they also help students develop self-confidence and the feeling that they deserve to be exactly where they are: on a university campus.

“The transition to college is difficult for any student, but especially for our students facing homelessness,” Roark says. “My goal for this program is to set these students up for success by providing them with the items they need to begin their college career. What’s beautiful about a program like this is that it gives back. These students will one day be the next hand-raisers and game-changers in our communities, and it is an honor to help them get a jump start on their journey."


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