During high school, Alfred Quarles (above) dreamed of becoming a chef and serving those living a luxurious lifestyle. Now he does the opposite, serving children in the School District of Philadelphia who lack the most basic necessities, including a place to call home.
Quarles came into his role as Philadelphia’s regional director of Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness (ECYEH) after a friend got him involved in a volunteer position at a rehabilitation facility that dealt directly with children.
“I really fell in love with the tough youth. We had a little bit of everything at the agency, but I really thrived with those children,” he said. “I really did well and I wanted to tie the behavioral health piece in with the educational piece.”
Over the last eight years, Quarles has been able to do just that through his job. His role is to ensure that homeless students facing barriers to their education receive the help they need under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
“My main objective is to make sure that the act is followed and that students who have barriers to their education have them removed,” said Quarles. “Many of our children face enrollment barriers because they could have had a fire, or they could be fleeing domestic violence, or they may not have all the documentation that is required to get enrolled. It is our job to make sure that they can be immediately enrolled.”
The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children and youth as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
Quarles works to provide students who fall under these guidelines with the essentials for going to school. Sometimes parents come by his office to pick up these items (below).
“We provide uniform vouchers, book bags, sneakers, hygiene products,” said Quarles. “I’m expecting 5,000 coats to come in so that we can provide coats to all the children.”
However, according to Janiece Frisby, ECYEH’s assistant program coordinator, Quarles does much more than just provide these children with resources; he provides them with a sense of love and care that they are often times lacking in their personal lives.
“A lot of the kids call him Uncle Al because they connect with him,” said Frisby (below, standing). “This whole program is really not about just advancing the students and then casting them off. We keep a hold on them. We keep in contact with them to make sure that they are doing well and we always inform them that any help that you need, just come back home.”
Through his work, Quarles has had the opportunity to grow close with one student in particular, who is currently a senior at Penn State.
“I have a young lady who I [symbolically] adopted the first year we ran the program, she’s like my daughter,” said Quarles. “To this day, we are still very close. She comes over my house for Thanksgiving. My daughter is her cousin. My wife is her aunt. It’s amazing how some of these students really don’t have anything, so you can’t help but become a family.”
Another role that Quarles plays in his job is educating counselors, nurses, principals and other members of school district about the McKinney-Vento Act and the assistance that ECYEH provides.
“Al has been very helpful and is always responsive and has been very resourceful with the questions that we’ve had,” said Christina Savage, a counselor at Act Academy Charter School (above). “It really seems like he always has the students’ best interests at hand.”
Quarles’ goal in these workshops is to help workers in the school district to identify students who have been affected by homelessness.
“The children don’t really want people to know that they are in a homeless situation and it’s very hard to tell,” said Delethine Coleman, ECYEH’s special projects assistant. “Most of time the kids that come to our program, their friends don’t even know that they’re homeless.”
Because of Quarles’ educational workshops on the McKinney-Vento Act, students like Sakinah Norris (right) and Khy’Ianna McCrea (left) have been able to get involved with an ECYEH initiative called the Teen Evolution Experience Network (TEEN).
Norris, a 12th grader currently experiencing homelessness and attending Parkway High School, said the program has given her uniform vouchers, motivation, comfort and placement in a shelter.
“Because of them, I hope to study psychology at Bloomsburg [University] after I graduate,” Norris said.
At the end of the day, Quarles said his main goal is to support those who will benefit from the McKinney-Vento Act the most.
“They may be difficult to locate, but when we find them, the homeless population is a population that we’re really trying to support,” he said.
-Video, text and images by Lara Witt and Lindsey Murray