By Linda Jacobson, originally published by The 74 Million.
On a rainy Monday before winter break, the hallways at Fruit Valley Elementary School in Vancouver, Washington were unusually quiet. The pandemic had cut enrollment nearly in half, but that didn’t deter Staci Boehlke, who runs the school’s resource center.
She welcomed police officers into the colorful, light-filled space as they dropped off bags of donated toys. She spoke with a parent whose landlord sent a warning about late rent. And after recess, she found dry socks and shoes for a kindergartner who couldn’t resist stomping through puddles on the playground.
That’s why Boehlke, petite in jeans with faded knees and pink Converse sneakers, shows up every day — to offer a sense of stability to students whose homes can be turbulent, ensuring they never feel overlooked as she did as a child.
“Staci is good about being calm in the chaos,” said kindergarten teacher Nikki Halstead. “She knows just when to come by.”
Named for the working-class community that surrounds it, Fruit Valley Elementary is bordered by rent-assisted housing and a Frito-Lay plant that employs about 450 of the area’s residents. In 1999, it became the first in the Vancouver district to open a resource center where families in need could find food and clothing, but also get help with housing vouchers, job referrals, and links to mental health counseling.The concept — generally known as a community school — spread throughout the district, and now all 39 schools employ or share a resource coordinator.
But the job title doesn’t begin to describe Boehlke’s expansive role. Running the resource center is “what they pay me to do,” she said. “But five days a week, I see little people that I have the blessing of making sure are known, seen and heard. That’s the stuff they couldn’t pay me not to do.”
As the resource coordinator, Boehlke is the focal point between families and businesses and nonprofits who pay for everything from afterschool programs to backpacks full of school supplies.
“Everybody goes away with their cup filled,” said April Thatcher, a longtime partner of the school who runs a 24-acre vegetable farm about 20 minutes north of Vancouver.
‘Another seat at the table’
Wearing cargo pants and a red waterproof jacket, her hair tucked under a knit cap, Thatcher trekked through the mud toward her barn where donkeys Eyeore and Dumpling live with hens and a few rescued goats. Her business, she said, caters to customers who want organic produce directly from the farm. But Thatcher and her husband Brad were unsatisfied serving an exclusively niche market. They wanted to give less-fortunate families a chance to enjoy the arugula, kale, zucchini and other crops they grow.
“We got tired of hearing … ‘Well, that’s great if you can afford it,’” Thatcher said, as Slim Pickings, a gray cat, circled her ankles. “That’s not who we are.”
She took that “wisp of an idea” — expanding the program to low-income families — to Boehlke, who in a matter of days found donors willing to put up $10,000 a year to give farm “memberships” to about 20 families. Thatcher’s clients matched it.
Farm to Heart was born in May of 2020, just after the pandemic set in. Parents were anxious about going to the grocery store, and when they did, often found the shelves bare. Parents used to working two jobs to pay the bills were suddenly out of work.
Esmeralda Ocampo, who has fourth- and eighth-grade boys, said the fresh produce was especially helpful when her husband lost his job in 2020.
“We’re receiving stuff that we never knew existed,” Ocampo said. “My little one is always looking in the bag to see what is new.”
Now Thatcher has linked up with another farmer offering customers fresh berries and a fisherman supplying wild salmon. She has a waitlist of potential customers, and her paying members value supporting families in need. A classically trained chef from Mexico showed the Farm to Heart families how to prepare some of the produce.
Boehlke’s strength, Thatcher said, is “pulling out another seat at the table and saying, ‘Sit down.’”
Despite its name, Fruit Valley is a food desert. Beyond a few convenience stores, the nearest supermarket is over a mile away — two bus rides for parents who depend on public transit. Matthew Fechter, the school’s principal, sends those looking for a meal to a nearby Shell station for fried chicken.
That’s why the Clark County Food Bank, which serves the greater Vancouver area, expanded its reach into the community. In 2015, Boehlke began turning the resource center and her husband’s church into makeshift pantries while the food bank built a satellite location, the Community Kitchen. Boehlke even drove to the main location, about five miles away, to pick up food.
Emily Straw, the food bank’s director of programs, saw a need for bilingual volunteers to communicate with the neighborhood’s growing Hispanic community. Boehlke asked members of Padres en Alerta, or Parents on Alert — a Spanish-speaking moms’ group — to help. Now, some of their children volunteer at the Community Kitchen, just down the street from the elementary school.
“There is a culture where we take care of each other in Fruit Valley,” Straw said. “That emanates from Staci.”
Before COVID-19, the resource center served as a hub where parents connected after dropping off their children, often working on projects to benefit the school. For Amber Walker, who left an abusive relationship in Seattle in 2005 and struggled to support two young children on her own, it was much more.
“There would be days I would run out of food for my kids, and you could go over there and get canned food. I don’t know many schools even to this day that do that,” said Walker.
Boehlke let Walker use the copy machine to complete her divorce paperwork and helped pay her electric bills with funds from a district account.
“Staci was in our lives for three or four years,” Walker said. “That emotional support for me was very fortifying.”
Boehlke didn’t see Walker as just a young mother scarred by abuse. When the local chamber of commerce invited Boehlke to talk to business leaders about the center several years ago, she asked Walker to stand in for her — unwittingly launching Walker’s career as a public speaker on surviving domestic violence.
At the time, the resource center “was a pilot, and I’m up there as a parent talking about why we need to keep this program,” Walker said.
School counselor Kelly Sloniker said Boehlke “knows our families inside and out.” It’s a sense of empathy that grew from painful personal experience.
When she was in kindergarten, her mother, stricken with encephalitis, fell into a coma. Unlike the students she serves now, the young Boehlke didn’t have someone who recognized her suffering.
She acted out in school and was transferred from class to class by teachers who didn’t know how to handle her behavior. In middle school, she became her mother’s caretaker, in charge of administering her medication. When Boehlke was 12, her mother died of an intentional overdose.
“Her suicide said to me that I didn’t do it right. I didn’t do enough,” she said. “I gave her her meds. She was saving them, and I didn’t catch that.”
Leaning on her Christian faith and the support of her family, Boehkle channeled that pain into her current position. In the process, she’s become an institution in this tight-knit community, located literally on the other side of the tracks from the rest of Vancouver.
‘Know their stories’
Boehlke’s job — and understanding of the resource center’s potential — evolved over time. She volunteered at the school before becoming an employee in 2004 and threw her energy into organizing events like budgeting workshops — efforts, she said, that would sometimes “fall flat.”
“I, like so many others, thought I knew the problems, the needs and the solutions for people I did not yet know, understand or listen to,” she said. “It was a steep and humbling growth opportunity for me and continues to be for community schools. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to families.”
After a few years in her position, Boehlke began to look at family engagement differently.
“It wasn’t my job to make them engage,” she said. “It was my job to engage with them — to know their stories.”
It’s a different path than the one she set out on. In community college, Boelhke took courses to become a police officer. That changed when her husband Michael expressed fears for her safety. But one thing remained, she said: She still feels compelled to “run toward danger.”
And sometimes it runs toward her.
One night last fall, she and Michael were asleep when a man knocked on their front door. He told her that a woman nearby was dragging her 10-year old son down the street.
The man, a parent from the school, had called the police earlier. But after they arrived, he asked the boy if he knew “Miss Staci.” He said yes.
Boehlke and her husband rushed to the scene. The mother sat in the back of an ambulance as an officer dialed child protective services.
After logging into the school’s database on her phone, Boehlke contacted another member of the boy’s family. The father, separated from the boy’s mother, soon came to pick up the child. Without a ready supply of foster homes in the area, the boy might have been placed outside of Vancouver.
Boehlke described her involvement as “super simple,” but added the situation could have been far more distressing for the boy if he had been sent an hour away.
It wasn’t the first time a parent has tracked her down outside school hours. She once mediated a dispute between a husband and wife who came to her door. Former students, now in middle or high school, sometimes stop by looking for ice cream money. She gives them $5 to take out the trash.
“She is an anchor in this storm of so many turbulent lives,” said Jennifer McMillan, a mental health provider in Vancouver who has worked with students at the school. “She would say she is just a link in this whole chain.”
‘Amazing works of kindness’
During the turmoil in her own childhood, Boehlke once asked her father for a guitar. Thinking it wouldn’t make much difference, he bought her an electric bass instead. She took to the instrument immediately and joined her high school jazz band. Now, she plays at River’s Edge Church, where her husband Michael is pastor.
Guitars still occupy an important place in her life. Three hang on the wall in a low-lit room by the kitchen. During quiet moments before school, she reads her Bible and strums a 1940s Silvertone archtop acoustic she picked up from a yard sale for a few bucks — a devotional to start her day.
“I did not go to school for any of this,” said Boehlke, who views her work as a calling. “Yet, I get to sit in the front row in my community and watch amazing people do amazing works of kindness for total strangers.”
This story was originally published as part of the “Weaving a Stronger Society – Starting in our Schools” series celebrating educators who use community to help students succeed in school and life. The series was produced by education news site The 74 Million in partnership with the Aspen Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Project and support from The Walton Family Foundation.