The following is an interview with Coryll Rupert, Chief Charlo’s Families in Transition (FIT) Coordinator. The purpose of the FIT program is to assist families who are experiencing homelessness and/or economic hardship. One way that she does this is through Missoula Food Bank & Community Center’s Kids EmPower Pack Program. All around Coryll’s office are drawers, tubs and shelves with labels that detail its contents including sizes, colors and whether it is for a girl or boy.

RP: This is organized! What are all of these clothes and toiletries? Are these for your FIT kids or anyone in the school who might have an accident, get wet socks, etc.?

CR: Most of the children that I actually work with here at Charlo are on that cusp. They’re right there, they are at risk. Their families are trying to make it from month to month so that they don’t flip over that edge into what could be a ‘true fit’ situation, a homeless situation. So toiletries, I have those because families that are in that at risk situation, many of them are on SNAP or TANF. SNAP doesn’t pay for or cover toiletries.

And I explain that to the kids. Like I have third graders that come in and help me put (EmPower Packs) together.  Put the apples and information in. And then I go through the office, just like I did with you, and tell them what everything is for. But with the toiletries, in particular, I point out that there’s toilet paper sitting there.

Some say, “why would somebody need toilet paper?”

I say, “Well, not everybody can afford even the smallest thing like that.”

I think it really opens their eyes to like, “Whoa. Okay.”

I just go through and I’m like, “There’s toilet paper and stuff and grownups will call me. You guys don’t know it, but grownups will call me and leave me messages saying, ‘Hey. Do you have any toilet paper? Do you have any shampoo? If so, can you please put it in so and so’s backpack, or leave it down at the office and in box?’” That’s where your banana boxes come in handy! (Referring to boxes that Missoula Food Bank & Community Center sends Kids EmPower Packs in.)

Over here are winter coats, hats, gloves and boots. These tubs have backpacks; girls’ bags in here, boys’ in here. Clothes of all different sizes. I have toddlers’ clothing up there for younger siblings. Halloween costumes are up there, right next to Valentines. We have a sock hop once a year, so I have poodle skirts that people can borrow. I only have five.

So yeah, that’s kind of everything and most everything in here was donated.

When we get new families, I will call and introduce myself. I’m trying to find those that need the program.

Right away many of them are like, “Oh, I’m good, I’m good.”

I’m like, “Okay, but I also need to tell you how you can help me.”

So then I let them know when you’re getting ready to go to Goodwill or wherever they may go, please call me first because chances are, I can probably use what they’re taking to the other place. That opens the eyes for the families too.

So that’s what’s in here. That’s why there’s this pile of donations I have to go through.

RP: This is very cool. I think even just having this displayed like this is great. I can’t imagine being kid in need of pajamas, or in need of socks, but seeing how much you have of everything, I’m sure it makes kids more comfortable to ask, or maybe even parents that come to your doors too.

CR: Yeah.

You originally asked if this was a place for when students need socks or have accidents or whatever. That too.

It’s kind of turned into that sometimes. It’s more that than it is for the other folks that I’m talking about. And that’s okay. We just want them to feel comfortable when they’re here. It’s not for dirty laundry though.

I had a little person a couple weeks ago actually, who immediately came here. She was standing in my door holding her coat and said, “I spilled chocolate milk all over myself.”

It was hard for me, because I’m a mom. But I also, we have to try and teach them too. If you’re messing around or if you’re out splashing in puddles at school, should I really help you? She was hot; there was another staff person here too and she was like *shrug*. We know this person this little person and we were like, “Were you doing this?” and she’s like, “Yeah…” So we had to just let her learn that it’ll dry. It’s really hard to watch them walk off after learning that lesson.

If it’s an accident, that’s a different story.

RP: Well, how long have you been here at Chief Charlo?

CR: Okay, so you told me earlier, you were going to ask one about why I am here.

That kind of goes into your question you just asked. This is my fourth year, but I started out as a parent. My son is an eighth grader now and he went here. When he was in fifth grade, and my daughter was going into kindergarten, the person that was in this position before me caught me about three steps into the door and said, “Are you ready to go back to work?”

I was just like “What??”

You wait for the chance for your kids to go to kindergarten so you have a little time for yourself. It was perfect timing and so I’ve been here for four years.

RP: And what got you, besides that circumstantial situation, into counseling and being a resource provider for an elementary school? What influenced you to become a school counselor?

CR: Okay, let’s see if I can say this without crying.

RP: Crying is perfectly okay; emotions don’t scare me!

CR: Laugh

My parents when they were little, would have been these kids. And I didn’t realize that until after I was doing it. So it’s just kind of in my soul, maybe.

I grew up in a great situation. I always had everything I needed, no issues. I mean, as a kid, you know you always wanted more, cause you’re just a kid. But my parents both were extremely poor.

My mom was in a domestic violence situation, abandoned as a child. When it came around to my siblings and I, all I ever heard was, “Don’t forget where you came from. Don’t forget where you came from. Try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

And it used to drive me crazy! “What are you talking about? I didn’t come from anything. I have this. I have that.” I used to get so mad at her, but then, working here was like, “Oh!”, a kind of epiphany…. “This is what she meant.” This is where I came from. This was the reality just a generation before.

So, the tears though, I think, really come from the fact that my father was here. Not this past Christmas, but the Christmas before. My dad died in March of last year. It was the first time he’d ever been to my job to see what I do. For me, that was kind of like a full circle moment in some way. Because I remember he stood outside my door and he was just looking at all this stuff.

He looked at me and said, “I don’t know how you do what you do.”

I was like, “Really?! How can you say that? And I do it because you.”

So that’s where the tears come from.

Also going back to, Why did I get into counseling?, I have been in social work for a long time.

I just was always that person, even as far back in junior high, that people would come to me and I never understood why. They just always came to me when they have problems.

In college I got my undergrad in Health and Human Services. Right before I graduated my college counselor said to me that he truly felt I shouldn’t be in this field, because I was a detriment to it, because I was too sensitive.

And back then I was extremely sensitive, but thankfully he said that because it made me angry.

It made me, forced me to go get a graduate degree. So now I have a master’s in social work. When I was there, I did all my internships in different kinds of areas. I’ve been in a mental health setting, I’ve worked with the elderly, I’ve worked in a prison, I worked at Meals on Wheels and did home visits for a couple of years, I’ve kind of been all over.

Then I moved back to Montana, when my now eighth grader was 18 months, and then I was stay at home mom for 11 years. So that’s why the person before me said, “Are you ready to go back to work?”

And it was just this position is such a mix of all of it put together. Learning from all of those people just kind of seeped into me, how I feel very empathetic and it’s natural that I’m in this area.

RP: Going back, I wanted to touch on something again. You’d mentioned that you were told that you were a ‘detriment to social work because of how sensitive you were.’ In my head, I’m projecting why that would make me angry, but what particularly about that made you angry and determined to continue in this field?

CR: Aside from the fact that he was a psychiatrist, and he was one of those people that came across as it was his way or the highway and he knew everything. That’s one thing that made me mad. I was mad because I was thinking, ‘You’re telling me this when I’m getting ready to graduate?! I should be proud of something, and I’m the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college, and you’re telling me I shouldn’t be here?!?!’

When I think for my parents, it was probably such a huge deal.

You know, at the time I was just angry, because I was just a 24 year old kid thinking, ‘Who are you to tell me that? You don’t even know me!’, that’s where it came from, at first, but now looking back 25 years later, I think it’s more something in me knew that this is where I belonged.

Luckily, when I was in graduate school, the guidance counselor I had there also a male, but very different. He was an attorney, who, you’d think, would be someone, at that point in my life, that would have seemed overpowering and scary to me. But he just understood from my personality, that’s where I needed to be.

And so, he tried to foster it by having me work on a research project with him and gave me little, specific jobs to do, just to help build the confidence that I did not have. So I’m very grateful to him.

Coryll Rupert delivers Kids EmPower Packs at Chief Charlo Elementary School.

RP: So you’ve been here at Chief Charlo for four years. What is your favorite part about working with Chief Charlo kids?

CR: I think the fact that they see me as this safe person, and just like back in eighth grade, as a kid myself, for whatever reason my cohorts saw me as that and came to me. They see me as that too and come to me.

I don’t know if that’s necessarily any different at Chief Charlo than if I were at Franklin School or somewhere else. I think I fill their cup in the way they need and they fill my cup in the way that I need.

Plus, it helps that she’s across the hall. (Referring to her daughter who’s now in 3rd grade)

At recess she’ll pop by and come in for a hug. Again, filling up my cup, but, you know, it’s my child so it’s different. She laughes.

RP: What does the EmPower Pack program, look like at Chief Charlo?

CR: My first year and this year are a little different than the two in between, you’ll understand why in a minute. I go down, I get the packs and fresh fruit out of the cafeteria, that’s all me. I’m the person that delivers them, that’s all me.

But the in between work, putting the apples and the paper stuff that needs to go in them, students help me with that. The reason it was that way, my first year is because my office was over in the fifth grade hall and my son was a fifth grader. I talked to the teachers about having them help, because it’s extremely important to me to help children learn how to have empathy.

So I would pull them in, two kids per week, and we would just talk while filling the EmPower packs with apples. I’d show them around the office like I did with you and ask, “What do you think this is for?” and “Why do you think I’m here?”, and so on. Kids thought it was really cool that this was here for other people. There was a handful that you could see just quite didn’t get it.

What was really cool for me as the adult was, I knew which kids were receiving EmPower packs. To have them help me pack them with someone who wasn’t receiving them and to have them hear the questions, or see the interest of the other child, I think it also helped them. Helped them see that you didn’t need to be so embarrassed or feel so bad. If they wanted to tell them they received EmPower Packs, that was their choice, but I would never say it.

I feel like it brought them together. The reason I’m doing it again this year is that my daughter’s across the hall and her teacher believes that community service is one piece that is not in the curriculum. This is the closest that we could get to it. She agreed to it and she set up a schedule. Two kids come every week and help me out. I think next year I’ll probably ask another third grade teacher, so that we can try and do it every year because I want them to have some understanding of the program.

These third graders have been amazing. They’re so interested. They think it’s so fun. They believe it’s so important to help other people. They just have really good questions. It’s really great. And so then that’s on Thursday, and then on Friday I deliver. So, like I said, delivering is all me but that’s not true. There’s about 5%, of the deliveries a few kids help with.

I go pull some of the FIT kids out to help, for example I’ll pull one out a kindergartener, and she helps me quite often put the packs in lockers. I do that for a couple reasons: one, is because she’s behind educationally and that’s overwhelming to her. So I give her a break and I’m like okay look for locker 63, so it’s helping her with their numbers. Two: it’s helping with some socializing/communication.

I think it helps FIT kids to see that they’re not alone because they know they get them. They say, “Wow, that’s a lot of bags!”

I’ll say, “Yeah there’s a lot of kids here, they get these too.”

And then they’re done, I give them what’s called apack paw, you get these little rewards when you do things here at school and they go in a box in the in their class and then a name is pulled out at the end of the week and they get a prize. So they could get rewarded in that way but for me, I think it’s the reward of helping me, the high five and they go bouncing off the class.

These helpers are so young that I don’t think they truly understand what they just did, but I think something, at least, is setting in, a feeling of not being alone. I think it’s really important.

RP: How many kids are in the program here?

CR: We only have 40. Which, to me is still a lot, but compared to some other schools, I think it’s probably less.

RP: So with 40 kids in the program, do you ever hear any feedback about the EmPower packs?

CR: I tend to hear more about what you don’t like. She laughes.

What they do like: they like the pepperonis, they like the apples, the granola bars.They like when there’s something new in there.

What they don’t like is when it seems repetitive. Some don’t like that it makes their backpacks heavy, but those ones that don’t like that their backpacks are heavy tend to be the ones that in some ways they truly don’t understand why they’re getting them. Mom and Dad say keep sending them home.

You know there’s two or three that when I go to their locker the next week, the pack from the week before is still hanging in there.

I have to take those out of their locker and I have a little chat with them to tell them I understand you don’t necessarily know why this is important, but I really need you to take this home.

But then that’s where I have questions for you guys because I’m unsure, when do you decide that line of Do they really need that?

The milks I think are the one thing that over the years I’ve heard the most negativity towards. (Referring to shelf stable milk provided in EmPower packs.)

I don’t know if they put them in the fridge at home. If you put them in the fridge they are definitely a lot better.

I will ask for more feedback though.

One thing that I think is cool, I don’t know if it’s like this at the other schools, is that those that don’t get them want to know why. They see it as it’s cool to get these.

So I get questions from kids like, “Did my mom call you and tell you I need one?” or “How do you get those?” And I say, “Well your mom or dad have to tell me.”

“Has mine called this week?”, they’ll ask. She laughes.

And it’s like, “No, buddy, sorry.” So I think that’s a good thing and in the eyes of the majority, it’s a cool thing to get them.

RP: But that’s just even more value to the work that you do. You have reduced stigma in this school for these EmPower packs. Students see it as a cool thing of like, ‘Oh hey, how do I get my hands on one of those.’ Yeah, I think that’s really great.

CR: Thank you. I haven’t thought of it that way.

I will ask more though kids. I’ll make a point of that when we get back from break. Maybe I’ll just pull them in one at a time.

RP: Well, is there anything else about EmPower packs you’d like to share?

CR: No, I mean I appreciate it. Going back to my parents or past generations… there’s so many people over the years that went hungry. And so I think it’s just great that these are in schools for the kids now.

There are so many children that need them. It’s just such an epidemic problem.

Thanks to Coryll for her dedication to kiddos in our community! We couldn’t run this program without the extraordinary adults in our local schools who are on the front lines of fighting childhood hunger every day.

You can support kids in our community by donating to our Kids EmPower Pack Program during Missoula Gives. Click here to learn more.

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