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Ten Years In, Care To Learn Is Close To Meeting Its One Millionth Need

Flickr User Nik
Creative Commons, Used with permission

In this segment of our Sense of Community Series on the impact of poverty on education, we're bringing you an update on an organization that’s rounded the corner on its 10-year-mark here in the Ozarks: Care to Learn.

"I’m just amazed at how resilient these kids have to be. But at the same time, that’s what hurts. That’s the thing that we need to solve,” said Care to Learn founder and board member Doug Pitt.

You may have heard that Care to Learn tries to meet the health, hunger and hygiene needs of kids in schools with local chapters.

The needs in these three areas can greatly affect attention in class, test-taking, attendance and self-confidence.

Pitt, who is a business owner, says Care to Learn is very structured.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we run Care to Learn like a business. And it’s no secret: I’m not a not-for-profit guy. I’ve been a business person all my life. So it’s the only way I know to run something,” he said.

Pitt said he has tried to make Care to Learn efficient, similar to how he operates his companies.

“We’re pretty militant about the guardrails that we put up with Care to Learn with health, hunger and hygiene. You know, we don’t do sporting equipment and money for field trips. We’d love to be all things to all people, but that’s not how we run our businesses. We find out what we do. We stay in our lane, and we do it well,” Pitt said.

One of the things that was non-negotiable early on, he says, was confidentiality.

“Already, these kids are being singled out for being poor. It’s not their choice. They don’t deserve it.  And we’re sure not going to exploit that. So, out of the almost one million needs we’ve been able to fill in ten years, I’ve never met one kid. I wouldn’t know them if they were sitting in front of me. And that’s by design,” Pitt said.

How the local chapters work

Credit Care to Learn Nixa's Facebook
Bags of hygiene supplies are organized by Nixa's chapter of Care to Learn.

Care to Learn trains school staff members on how to identify kids with needs, how to meet those needs within 24 hours, and how to keep it all confidential.

At the heart of Care to Learn are local chapters—and the communities that fund them.

Here's how it works: 

Care to Learn is based on partnerships with school districts and their communities. Pitt says there are now 34 chapters statewide, including in Springfield, Ozark, Willard and smaller towns like Ash Grove and Gainesville.  It’s also expanded to the Kansas City and St. Louis areas.

“In every chapter, we have a liaison at the school that is the ‘quarterback,’ if you will. And it would be that person that would get the call,” Pitt said.

At Nixa Public Schools, that liaison is Annie Zimmerman.  She’s also the volleyball coach there.

“As soon as I receive that request, I can hopefully, in a matter of minutes, have a voucher back to that teacher,” Zimmerman said.

On the voucher are details of the specific need and how much money the voucher is worth.

“That student can then take that voucher to either Walmart, if they need to purchase clothing, or shoes or hygiene products—or if it’s for a doctor or dentist appointment or something like that, then they can take that voucher to the vendors that we work with,” Zimmerman said.

And a big piece of this model is community partnerships.

“We also have relationships with an eye care vendor here in Nixa, Nixa Family Eye Care. And the family medical walk-in clinic here in Nixa. For our dental needs, we go through Children’s Smile Center, which their office is actually located in Ozark, so just the neighboring town,” Zimmerman said.

Part of Zimmerman’s job is fundraising for her Care to Learn chapter.

When a new chapter begins, the nonprofit’s headquarters, based in Springfield, trains the CTL liaison on how to raise money locally.  Each chapter raises its own money and keeps that money to spend in their district.

Zimmerman was also trained on how to teach staff members to look for signs of need—even when children don’t communicate those verbally.

“I actually, just today, issued by 106th voucher for the school year,” Zimmerman said.

Nixa’s chapter sends backpacks filled with food home on the weekends with kids who otherwise would be missing meals at home.

Those “lanes” Pitt talks about—health, hunger and hygiene—can sometimes involve finding creative solutions in areas we might not consider.  That part has evolved, he says, over the years.

For example, a kid might have health insurance or Medicaid, but they don’t have transportation to get to the doctor.

“And so we can spend a lot of even transportation, taxis. And again, I speak to running Care to Learn like a business and being entrepreneurial,” Pitt said.

“We will pay for buses. We will pay for taxis. And sometimes, you know, that’s the quick and easy way to get that done. And I was shocked at the cost and, really, what that entails, because again, that was really never on the radar. But we’ve got to be smart in the way we handle these things,” Pitt said.

For example, a child living in a home with bedbugs won’t benefit much from being treated only at school. So, Pitt says, Care to Learn has paid for pest control to visit a home.

When we report on charities, we routinely take a look at their Form 990 – that’s the IRS form that tax-exempt organizations have to make available to anyone who requests a copy.  Care to Learn’s 990 forms are posted on its website.

Its most recent one is 40 pages long, and we looked over each page. It shows the main organization in Springfield has consistently brought in just over a million dollars a year for the past several years from donations and grants—and that the fund balance is consistently growing, a sign of health for the organization.

Care to Learn also issues grants to other non-profits like The Tooth Truck and Crosslines.  Manager of operations Jhasmine Whatson said that happens when Care to Learn determines that those organizations could provide resources at a fraction of the cost, compared to the alternatives.  

Local nonprofit expert Dan Prater says the best way to gauge how well a nonprofit is honoring its mission is to look at whether it has clear goals, how it goes about meeting those goals, and measuring the outcomes.

Care to Learn’s governing documents, conflict of interest policy, and financial statements are all available to members of the public who request them.

The organization reports that it’s met more than 900,000 needs in the ten years it’s been operating. That's nearly one million obstacles to children’s learning removed:  pairs of glasses, jeans that fit, cavities filled, head lice exterminated, and the list goes on and on. 

Next month, Pitt will be inducted into the Missouri Public Affairs Hall of Fame for his vision and ongoing involvement in Care to Learn. 

For school districts wanting to learn more, you can click here.

Join us all this week at 7:45 AM and 4:44 PM as our Sense of Community series looks at the impact of poverty on education.  You can also see the stories here.

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