INSPIRED. Dr. Johnnye Waller, NC Homelessness Liaison of the Year
For Dr. Johnnye Waller, being named North Carolina's Homeless Liaison of the Year by the state Department of Public Instruction isn't a reflection on her – instead, it's a reflection of the community she loves.
“I am not in this by myself,” said Waller, who as Lee County Schools' assistant superintendent of auxiliary services and director of student services oversees the district's homeless program. “This is a recognition of the district's dedication and commitment to the issue of homelessness, and I am just the one that got named.”
Still, Waller's work on the homeless program is to be lauded. It involves everything from writing grants to working with community partners to provide resources like tutoring and school supplies to homeless children, of which Lee County has more than 300 – a surprising number which belies a real problem many remain unaware of.
“If someone has lost their home or job and has had to move in with a relative or friend, under our criteria, that counts as a homeless student, or 'in transition,' as we say, as well as those who may be living in a hotel or at a campground. It's not necessarily the picture many people have of homelessness, like living under a bridge,” she said. “We also have some at HAVEN, Family Promise and the shelters. If we have people who were displaced from their homes somewhere else because of a natural disaster or something and here temporarily, that counts too. And we are here to offer them support and do what we can to help them make arrangements. We are not here to make judgments.”
Reaching students who may be in transition, or at risk of being in transition, isn't always easy.
“We try to be as involved as we can with our community agencies so we can work together to identify families who need resources and then deliver them,” Waller explained. “But in many cases, we're putting flyers up in the schools, even places like the laundromat – it's a warm place to stay. In some cases, families in transition may call us, or they may go to the school and we link them up with a social worker. But sometimes the social workers may learn of a situation and they have to track that family down and say 'how can we help?'”
It's that type of combined effort – as well as the number of people from across North Carolina that Waller meets who are working just as passionately on the same issue – which makes her reiterate her position that the award isn't about her.
“Part of being the homeless liaison is attending the training opportunities, where you get to learn about the things that are happening in other districts and see what you can take home,” she said. “Every time I go to one, I meet new people and I learn about new approaches and things we can do to make sure our students in transition get every opportunity to succeed.”
Waller was also recognized in 2018 for her involvement with Project Lift Off, which falls under the homeless program's umbrella and serves at risk or in transition students with a more structured learning environment.
In the end, Waller said one of the biggest advantages Lee County has in addressing the issue of homelessness is its small size, which allows for more relationship building than might be possible in larger communities.
“The relationship piece is so much easier,” she said. “We know the families, so we can work to build those individual relationships. And we don’t always have all the resources, but we have such a caring community. If we put out that a child needs something, usually before the end of the day, there’s someone in the district somewhere who says, ‘I can do that.’”
Inspired is a digital digest published each week during the academic year by Lee County Schools to highlight accomplishments of students, faculty and staff.