HERSHEY, Pa. — Millions of Americans are living in poverty due to the coronavirus pandemic, with low-income families bearing the brunt of the crisis. FOX43 Reveals how the unique Milton Hershey School in Derry Township, Dauphin County is becoming increasingly important at a time when the economic gap is growing wider.
For 14-year-old Candie Kolleh, art has always come naturally. She started copying her mother’s artwork at a young age and it has since become a stress reliever for her.
“My mom always drew trees and being young you’re inspired to be like your mom. She’s my hero and I always wanted to be like her and do what she does,” said Candie.
In December of 2018, Candie’s mother unexpectedly passed away. The crushing news happened 17 days before Candie’s 13th birthday.
“I was in denial of it for so long because I didn’t believe, I couldn’t believe, my mom just passed away,” she said. “It was very painful for me and I felt like at that time I needed love the most because I just lost somebody who was my source of love.”
Candie found that love at Milton Hershey School (MHS) in her 7th grade houseparents—Shannon and Tom Butler. Candie requested that the Butlers be with her at the hospital and together, they were at her mother’s bedside when she was pronounced deceased.
“It was very hard, very emotional,” Shannon Butler said. “She is a part of our family as much as any other student and she deserves to have that comfort and that reassurance in such a difficult time.”
Shannon has been a houseparent at MHS for 16 years. The Butlers currently care for nine girls from the school and have two boys of their own. They also own a dog called Wicket, named after the Star Wars Ewok.
Shannon’s journey started when she was a student at the school. She graduated in 1998 and never planned on becoming a houseparent. Four years later, she became a relief houseparent and it wasn’t long before she and her husband Tom took on the job full-time. They have never looked back.
“I came from a broken home and sometimes broken homes aren’t anybody’s fault. It’s just something that happens, but I think one of the goals of Milton Hershey is to help the kids to build positive relationships,” Shannon explained.
MHS is an unusual school that provides children with education, housing, health care, clothing and so much more—and all of it is free. It is one of the few options left for families navigating coronavirus closures and layoffs.
FOX43 Reveals that the number of Americans living in poverty grew by 8 million since may, according to a Columbia University study. Researchers found it has grown in recent months after coronavirus aid dwindled.
The report also finds that “increases in monthly poverty rates have been particularly acute for Black and Hispanic individuals, as well as for children.”
Schools like MHS are becoming significant lifelines to many more underprivileged families and are helping students like Candie realize their full potential.
“My mom always told me, ‘You’re here for your own purpose. I put you in this school so you can thrive.’ So I try to use the opportunity more. That’s when we started getting our own MacBooks, our own iPads and it felt good to have technology that I own,” Candie said about being a student at MHS.
Nearly 90 percent of the school’s roughly 2,000 students come from single-parent homes, with an average family income of $22,000. There are 180 student homes, each with eight to 12 students of the same gender and similar age. There are about 450 houseparents.
High school seniors live in one of the campus’ 10 dorm-style buildings to help them prep for college. Each building has Home Life staff to provide support to students. Every single student who attends MHS receives a tablet or a laptop.
MHS enrollment has increased by 70 percent over the past 15 years, which is why the school is constantly looking for more houseparents. However, the search has been impacted by the pandemic.
“The pandemic’s been interesting because of two factors. One, we do have more people unemployed in the marketplace, however we have not been able to have people come to campus as part of their interview process,” said Barbara Nichols, Director of Staff Recruiting at MHS.
Nichols takes FOX43 Reveals through the extremely thorough the vetting process for houseparents. It is a process that typically lasts six months and includes interviews with a private investigator, rigorous background checks and medical drug tests.
“It’s so important because when we hire, we would like someone to be in that position for years,” added Nichols. “We really teach resilience and grit to our students, but we also preach that to ourselves, especially the houseparents because it is such an all-in type of a role.”
Without the vision from chocolatier Milton S. Hershey and his wife Catherine, the Butlers would not have the connection they now share with Candie. The teenager is now a freshman in high school and lives with new houseparents.
Due to the pandemic, she has only been able to see the Butlers through FaceTime and Candie admits that it is hard to be away from them. However, out of tragedy a new tradition has emerged. Each year, on the anniversary of her mother’s death, the Butlers send Candie a dozen roses—a symbol of unconditional love and continued growth.
“I started crying because I have told the Butlers that my mom’s favorite are roses and even in the front of their home, they planted a lot of roses in tribute to my mom. It kind of felt like my mom’s legacy continues to grow through me,” said Candie.
If you are interested in being a houseparent or enrolling your child at the Milton Hershey School, visit their website for more information.
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