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Local nonprofit bringing mobile classroom to storm-ravaged Houston

Weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 storm and dumped a record 51.88 inches of rain on Houston as a tropical storm, much of the city is still a disaster zone.

One Sonoma County-based nonprofit is stepping in to try to help the city heal.

The Schoolbox Project found a gap in relief efforts: When volunteer crews traveled to neighborhoods to help clean or demolish houses, there wasn’t a place for children to go.

After a trip to Houston, founder Belle Sweeney and executive team members Jacqui Jorgeson and Sheldon Rosenberg, whose 15-month-old Sebastopol-based project already has provided trauma-informed care in Greece for child refugees of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, decided to get a 25-foot school bus, retrofit it into a mobile classroom and head to the nation’s fourth largest city this week for 90 days.

The Schoolbox Project brought on Julia Walker, 30, of Tyler, Texas, as its Houston director. Since the storm hit, Walker has been on the ground organizing relief efforts and providing trauma counseling not only for low-income families who lost their possessions but undocumented immigrant families afraid of seeking aid and encountering federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. In a city where schools only reopened a week ago and where some residents are remaining in waterlogged homes, much help is needed.

As The Schoolbox Project’s Houston director, Walker’s plan is to provide a structured nature-based curriculum that includes gardening in raised beds and self-sufficiency.

“The majority of Houston is a food desert,” she said. “I’ve come across several children that didn’t know what a cucumber was.”

The nonprofit is offering outdoor activities, crafts and play for all ages.

On average, Walker said, her volunteer group has been encountering about 20 families each day that she’s been volunteering since the storm. When The Schoolbox Project arrives, she’ll take on the training of volunteers in the organization’s model of trauma-informed, child friendly spaces.

Trauma-informed care is a treatment framework that involves understanding, recognizing and responding to the effects of all types of trauma.

Walker estimates that in the 90-day period, The Schoolbox Project’s school bus could serve thousands of people.

The program will be the first domestic effort for the nonprofit group, and will serve as a pilot for future disaster-relief efforts, deploying a school bus and staying for up to three months to provide child-friendly safe spaces.

Until this foray, The Schoolbox Project worked exclusively with refugee populations in Greece, using converted shipping containers as classrooms. After visiting Houston, Sweeney said they realized something more mobile was needed.

“After working overseas, it means so much to our team to also be able to serve children displaced by crises here at home,” Sweeney said of the Houston project. “We are so pleased to form strong partnerships with the incredible grassroots groups already working hard in these underserved communities.”

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