For many students, school represents structure, security and care, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, it altered their daily lives.
East Bakersfield High School social worker Natasha Martinez began her career at the school in 2019 and established the Blade Closet shortly after. The Blade Closet is a stockpile full of hygiene products, toiletries and clothing.
Martinez, a former EBHS and McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act student — an act that assures the educational rights and protections of children and youth experiencing homelessness — knew there was a need to give back.
“At East High we have a high population of McKinney-Vento students. There’s a lot of need for hygiene products, clothes and other things. As a social worker, I wanted items on hand,” she said.
Martinez said the program branched out quickly due to low socioeconomic families living in that area.
“We’re 81 percent below the poverty line and we’re a Title I funded school and all of our students qualify for our services," she said. "I don’t think anyone has a real idea of how many kids are homeless. We talk about adults we see on the street but we don’t realize how many kids are out there."
Martinez said a lot of students were initially timid when they’d visit the closet but once they knew everything was confidential, the Blade Closet turned into a hit. More students began coming forward for help, and the community came to aid Martinez and the rest of the team.
“It took a life of its own. With the staff and the community, I was blown away by the support," Martinez said. "People said we’ve needed something like this for so long — to help kids and donate. Our Booster Club even got involved."
When the coronavirus pandemic closed schools in March last year, Martinez said it created a lot of issues as far as getting and receiving donations for the closet. Prior to school shutdowns, students were able to walk into the closet and pick what they needed. During the times of COVID-19, Martinez is on campus every Wednesday to either drop off items to students' homes or arrange an appointment for them to pick-up items.
Since the Blade Closet grew in a span of months, Martinez and her team were able to shift from a small closet to a bigger space in the basement of East High to store items.
She also said she’s seen a huge shift in education when working with children. It’s not just about academics anymore; it’s about serving students who are emotionally, mentally and physically neglected.
Martinez encourages struggling students and families to ask for help and find the resources they need.
“We never used to have school social workers and programs that offer services to families and kids. Reach out because these programs are evolving. We’re there to help. People are struggling now more than ever,” she said.