BARTOW, Fla. — A Polk County woman who teaches in a small town, is making a very big difference.
You could say Ms. Samantha Swafford is turning the negative stigma of needing help into something cool.
Thursday, ABC Action News was invited into Swafford’s classroom, where she indeed held the attention of at least two-dozen middle school aged children; not an easy task.
But wrangling in and expanding the minds of teenagers isn’t enough for the middle school educator.
Swafford even admits that she has too much time on her hands and that’s why she’s created something truly special for her students who need it the most.
“Sometimes everybody needs a little bit of help,” Swafford said standing in a hidden closet inside the Bartow Middle School.
Only select students know about it, and even they don’t know who has been inside.
“We are trying to keep it a little discreet so nobody knows who has been in here or who hasn’t,” Swafford said.
Swafford likes to call it the “Boutique Shop”, some thing special where students can feel like they’re shopping instead of getting a handout.
Homelessness in Polk County Schools is up 32 percent since last winter.
The district says it due to Florida’s active hurricane season this fall.
So, with more than 2,700 student homeless, Swafford knew what she wanted to do.
“I had one student last year that I didn’t realize live didn’t wanna live in one of the shelters until until close to the end of this year, when they were so excited to go to a banquet and they were going to get a new shirt and tie,” Swafford said, stunned that she hadn’t realized sooner.
Swafford explained the student was smart, well behaved and she hadn’t noticed anything that would signal to her that the student had fallen on tough times.
“We say that kids come from all walks of life and it’s not always circumstances that they or their parents - it’s not their fault,” she said.
Swafford created the closet, offering all types of shoes, clothing, hygiene products, back packs and even dresses for girls who can’t afford one for dances.
“Peer pressure and peer influence is huge at this age,” Christ Roberts, Bartow Middle’s principal said, pointing out young teens’ self-esteem heavily relies on what they look like and how they feel at that age.
“We don’t want anyone to feel like they are left out or stand out for the wrong reasons,” Roberts added.
Both Swafford and Roberts eluded that a poor self-esteem can quickly turn into bad behavior.
Getting ahead of the child’s most basic needs can prevent behavioral issues and help the students preform better in school.
“Image is a big thing with middle school kids and how they look and how those types of things this gives them the opportunity to fit in and feel like they are not any different than anybody else,” he said.
Since the summer, Swafford has helped at least 35 students in need.
Mentioning she’s provided full uniforms, deodorant and new shoes to children who need it.
And although a huge step to helping the homeless in our community, Swafford says she only does it to help her students.
“It feels good, but it’s part of what teachers do,” she said.