December 19, 2018

Littlebrook School Reaches Out, Helps HomeFront Families in Need

HOLIDAY SPIRIT: Littlebrook kindergartner Eric Costello displays clothing and supplies he helped to gather for families in need at HomeFront. When Eric went home and told his mother all about HomeFront she immediately stepped up to help, purchasing a dozen new holiday outfits sizes 2T-3T.  (Photo courtesy of Melissa O’Donnell)

By Donald Gilpin

Over the past year, Littlebrook Elementary School (LB) has become the go-to provider for emergency needs for children and families at HomeFront (HF), helping to break the cycles of homelessness and poverty.

“It’s a beautiful friendship with Littlebrook,” said HF Family Campus Volunteer Coordinator Heather Tuller. “It’s a beautiful partnership that continues to bloom and flourish, a gift to both communities.”

“It’s like the red telephone,” Tuller said in describing the connection that’s developed between HomeFront and LB. “When there’s an emergency with a family, we can call Littlebrook. Our friends there are magnificent at rising to the occasion and supporting our efforts.”

HF Support Services Liaison Liza Peck commented on the “amazing network of Princeton kids, parents, and teachers in support of HomeFront. We let the teachers know particular needs that our families have, and they quickly get the word out — within a day or two, the needs are met.”

She continued, “For example, we have a young woman living in our Family Preservation Center who recently gave birth prematurely to twins. This wonderful network gathered clothing and supplies so that the overwhelmed young mother needed to worry only about caring for her babies. There have been many stories like this one. The response from the community has been unbelievable. Many are telling us how happy they are to find a way to connect on a more personal level with families in need.”

LB kindergarten teacher Melissa O’Donnell got involved during the past year, and she has enlisted her son and daughter, third-grade twins, to help with the endeavor. Her whole kindergarten class has also gotten involved.

“We get HomeFront requests for different families, both individual and bulk requests,” she said. Most of the children are on HF’s Ewing campus near the Trenton-Mercer Airport, where about 38 families live, usually for about two or three months at a time, during periods of trial and transition in their lives. 

O’Donnell and her children go to HF to deliver supplies about twice a month. Bulk donations are received at the Lawrenceville HF location donations dock at 1880 Princeton Avenue. 

Last summer O’Donnell got the word that three HF teenagers were hoping to go on a two-week camping trip, and she was able to round up the necessary sleeping bags, sunscreen, bathing suits, and other camping essentials for the children. 

O’Donnell’s daughter Gracie ran a shoe drive at LB, collecting contributions of more than 100 pairs of gently-used shoes of many types and sizes from the LB community, all of which she helped to deliver to HF.

“Gracie gets it,” said Tuller. “She has real depth of compassion, and she’s interested in the families here. She asked me what the families need, and how she could help.” A number of HomeFront children attend Trenton Public Schools, where they have to wear uniforms, so Gracie rallied her soccer team and they gathered more than 35 uniforms, along with 20 new coats, that Gracie and the whole team delivered to the HomeFront campus.

When O’Donnell reached out to the families of her kindergarten students, the response was immediate. A few days after letting her students know about the mother with premature twin babies, O’Donnell and her children were able to travel to HF with seven new baby outfits and many used and new baby supplies.

Another mother of a kindergartner asked how she could help. The word came from HF that a number of children wanted outfits for the holidays and for pictures with Santa, and one day and one Target shopping trip later she arrived with a dozen Christmas outfits for the HF children.

“Just by me asking, the kindergarten kids got involved,” said O’Donnell. “In supporting Gracie’s shoe drive, they would walk down to the shoe box at school to deliver shoes. Now they know about homelessness and people who have to live in motel rooms. The program is ongoing with the giving and more people needing our help.” 

She added, “One parent told me her son came home from school and he talked about HomeFront and how the people there lived and what it’s like for them.The kindergarten children have learned about giving and thinking of others. This is like a little spark that keeps creating these wonderful fires.”

O’Donnell described how on the day that she and her twins dropped off a particular selection of shoes, they noticed the girl who had gotten the pink Uggs. “My son said, ‘Mom, look! They fit her! Look how happy she looks!’ This was a special gift to me, for my son to see this. I want to teach my son that we’re very fortunate and can help others.”

LB science teacher Martha Friend initiated the LB-HF connection about a year ago after meeting HF workers at a Day of Service initiated by Governor Murphy.

“It’s about redistribution of resources,” she said. “There are people who have things they don’t need, people who have money, people who want to help but are not sure how.”

She continued, “I’m a conduit for so many people who want to help their neighbors, but are not sure how. It’s all about relationships. The work is ongoing. There is always a need and a place to make the connection.”

Friend, who has taught at LB for 24 years, went on to mention the importance of service there. “Service has always been a part of this school,” she said. “Littlebrook has a deep tradition of service.”

LB Principal Luis Ramirez concurred. He described the spirit that helps to drive the successful partnership with HomeFront. “The children here have really impressed me with the ideas they come up with to address any areas of need in our community. There are student-created signs around Littlebrook requesting items for individuals and families in need at HomeFront as well as boxes in our lobby to collect those items.

“Our staff members assist by donating items and preparing them for delivery. Parent volunteers and teachers take the items to HomeFront for distribution. The services and housing provided by HomeFront are truly appreciated by all of us, and we are proud to be a part of helping them and our families in need.”

Tuller pointed out that there are ample opportunities to get involved at HF (website: “A number of schools help out, but Littlebrook is unique,” she said. “We would like to see Littlebrook’s program replicated elsewhere.”