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Conversations with Laurie Taylor-Mitchell

Today we’d like to introduce you to Laurie Taylor-Mitchell.

Hi Laurie, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
I founded the Student Support Network in Baltimore County in December of 2015, when I discovered that about 300 students at my son’s former high school, Loch Raven High School, one-third of all the students there, were living in severe poverty and qualified for Free or Reduced Price Meals in school.

I was shocked and very upset about this number and it was during the December holidays. I sent out a short e-mail through Next Door asking for 4 volunteers to help 5 families in need at the school. During the next 13 days, with the school social worker often going until midnight, we helped 25 families through 125 volunteers who donated thousands of dollars in food cards, household necessities, gifts, and monetary assistance.

This tremendous response was a revelation to me of what can happen when people are not aware of a great need in their community, learn about it, and have a pathway to give.

In 2017, the Student Support Network became a non-profit organization and began to expand into more schools with Rooms of Support, where students and their families in need could get food, school supplies, personal care items, and clothing. School staff alert us to other needs, including funds for items such as academic field trips, gym uniforms, bedding, and furniture for students and families experiencing homelessness and trying to re-enter stable housing.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, between March 2020 and June 2021, the Network distributed over $7 million dollars worth of food and essential supplies to students and families at three large weekly distribution sites in Baltimore County. Hundreds of volunteers were involved in this effort to distribute food and supplies donated by government agencies and also funded through grants and private donations.

When schools re-opened in the fall of 2021, the Network went back to its original mission of supporting students in schools through providing funds for students in need, and advocacy for increased funding for food assistance programs in schools. The Student Support Network now has programs in 15 schools in Baltimore County, and there is a waiting list of schools wishing to join.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle-free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
The increasing number of students in poverty in the County school system, particularly since the pandemic, continues to be a pressing concern – about 59,000 students, over half of all students in the system, now live in severe poverty and qualify for Free or Reduced Price Meals in school.

Some students are embarrassed and feel ashamed about poverty and are unwilling to visit our Rooms of Support, so we have learned to stock basic items in places where they feel comfortable taking them, including school offices, libraries, counseling offices, and school Health Suites.

Since the needs always are beyond our capacities to address them, we constantly work to evaluate what the most pressing needs are for students and their families, in consultation with school staff.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I was a Professor of Art History for most of my career – earned a Ph.D. in the History of Art from the University of Michigan. My last position was as an Associate Professor at Hood College in Frederick Maryland.

After retiring from Hood in 2013, I ran for the County Council in Baltimore County in 2014. Following that race, I went back to education advocacy and doing research on student poverty in the school system.

I am most proud of my teaching career, my years of advocacy to improve Baltimore County Public Schools, and the founding of the Student Support Network.

The eclectic background of academic research related to visual imagery, education advocacy over 17 years, and a run for political office, have all been important in founding the Student Support Network in Baltimore County.  We are currently focused on providing more access to food during the summer months, when students in need do not receive meals in school.

Risk-taking is a topic that people have widely differing views on – we’d love to hear your thoughts.
What matters: Education – a good education is the one way most students living in severe poverty will be able to escape it.

Environment – without action on climate change and its effects, humanity will eventually live in a world in which “the living would envy the dead” (attributed to Nikita Khrushchev on the consequences of a nuclear exchange).

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Mitch Koppelman and Jerry Jackson

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