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Lion’s Den will be resource for San Antonio students

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com and Andrew Alonzo aalonzo@claremont-courier.com

Even under ideal circumstances, educating young people can be a perilous undertaking. Teens especially can be powder kegs of emotion, with every conceivable 21st century distraction affecting their ability to focus on learning.

And when one blends food insecurity or homelessness into that mix, simply getting through high school can become next to impossible.

Thanks to an enterprising teacher and a like-minded service group, Claremont’s San Antonio High School is now poised to alleviate a portion of this struggle.

Claremont’s Sunrise Rotary Club, along with creator and San Antonio science teacher Jessica Ly, cut the ribbon last week on The Lion’s Den, a resource center for the school’s 60 students.

The joint venture, funded by Sunrise Rotary and administered by Ms. Ly, offers free everyday items, such as personal and feminine hygiene items, school supplies, clothing and snacks to San Antonio’s student body.

There’s no publicly available data on how many of CUSD’s students are in fact homeless or food insecure, but the population certainly exists.

“The focus group is students experiencing homelessness, but once you target that group, that kind of serves everybody on campus,” Ms. Ly said. “The purpose is to create a space where it removes the stigma of asking for help and needing things, so our students have access to that without feeling embarrassed or anything like that. They have tangible items and know they have supports from a school that cares about them.”

The Lion’s Den project was actually in the works more than a year ago, but when the pandemic arrived it went into limbo as Claremont Unified School District and all students adjusted to the new normal of distance learning.

“I was really grateful that the Sunrise Rotary reached out to us again and said, ‘Hey, we're interested in this just because it is important,’” Ms. Ly said. Having “an outside factor who wanted to contribute, who wants to help schools, sometimes that's really rare, so we didn't want to pass that up. And we said, ‘Okay, let's get this going.’”

Sunrise Rotary provided $4,500 in startup money, all of it proceeds from its annual Turkey Trot fundraiser, and the Lion’s Den project was back in business.

“We just wanted to take [the expense of everyday items] off their plate so they could focus on other things,” said Sunrise Rotary President Andy Dale. “The whole thing kind of started with really trying to help homeless students. But not a whole lot of students self-identify as homeless.  I think part of that is there’s just so many different types, everything from being on the street to living with a group that’s non-relatives, to living in a hotel room. Some people are going to say ‘I’ve got a place to go at night, a bed to go to,’ but it’s not a really stable situation for them. There’s just so many shades gray in there.”

The Lion’s Den is housed in former storage area at the school.

“It's just great to see it being used again as a resource center for people who actually need it,” said San Antonio junior Ometeo Villafana. “Because I know a lot of people, they could really use something like this and that just sounds awesome for them to have a resource and help to come to if they need it.”

Sophomore Gabriel Lopez agreed.

“I'm glad they didn't just think about just destroying [the storage area] or about themselves and actually are thinking about other people,” Gabriel said. “And that's why I love this school. Because I enjoy coming here and they do things like this.”

That camaraderie and sense of Lion pride was mentioned by students, teachers and outsiders.

“We're a continuation school, so we still have a stigma of that,” said sixth year teacher Ms. Ly. “I don't know the vibe that you're getting, but hopefully you see that this is very vibrant. The kids are super engaged; the teachers are super caring and supportive.”

Even Mr. Dale has felt San Antonio’s good vibes.

“It’s really awesome because obviously everybody knows everybody,” he said. “And the relationships and the deep knowledge of the student body on the part of the faculty is great. They know what’s going on with pretty much every kid as far as I can tell. It really feels like a very deep bond at that school between the faculty, the students and the administrators.”

The germ for the Lion’s Den came while Ms. Ly was working on her master’s degree at UCLA and was assigned a leadership project .

“I went to school to become an administrator and I have aspirations to become a principal,” Ms. Ly said. “And I think, for me, it's kind of that first step beyond the classroom and finding ways to support students that go beyond the academia. Like, what else do they need, how do you support the whole child and what programs could you put into place at a whole school level? And so for me, this will kind of just be a memory of, like, okay this is my first step out of the classroom and putting something in place so that students can be even more successful in the classroom. Because you're helping them outside of it.”

With the Lion’s Den now open, Mr. Dale is now focusing on how Sunrise Rotary can continue to support the new resource.

“We are really focused on not being a ‘one-and-done’ organization, and not swooping in and spending money on something that lasts for weeks or months, and then moving on to the next project,” he said. “What we would like to do is actually spend time and resources developing this over time. There’s already a vision of the Lion’s Den really becoming kind of a social hub of the campus.”

And so goes another bit of altruistic good news for Claremont schools. With students now back on campuses districtwide, albeit with limited capacity, and COVID numbers continuing to move in the right direction in Southern California, it could be this trend will continue. Let’s hope so.

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