The Salt Lake Family Homeless Shelter has a history of interesting names. If you Google “Salt Lake Homeless Shelter,” you’ll be connected to The Road Home. I love this name. The Road Home is not the place, it’s the mission—the destination.
I worked at The Road Home years ago as a public school teacher. Getting that assignment was a journey all its own. A friend of mine, and fellow teacher, Marilyn Treshow, had convinced Salt Lake School District to place a trailer under the 6th St. freeway viaduct—a place where homeless families would often park their cars while they looked for work or food. She wanted the kids who lived in those cars to have a place to go to school. Parents would bring their kids to the trailer school each morning. Marilyn would hold classes until afternoon. She’d walk her students to the local park and do a science lessons about how the grass grew, and how clouds were formed. They did art projects and wrote poetry, and read the donated books that filled the trailer.
Marilyn invited my late husband, Ruel, and me to come every now and then to sing with her kids. Ruel played the banjo and I played guitar, and we’d sing “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir” so they could laugh and make the animal noises. Marilyn would turn it into a rhythm activity and have them dance to our music. Marilyn was a teacher’s teacher. She knew the power of joy. She was all about turning love into learning, and learning into love.
The District didn’t want to give the school a name because they felt that once you named something, it became permanent, and everything about Marilyn’s work seemed temporary. The trailer school had no cement foundation. The school’s library of donated books was constantly being given away to children as they moved on to the next city, and constantly being restored by new donations. The kids themselves were the definition of transient. When they left, she knew they wouldn’t be back to visit their old teacher the way suburban kids would. But you have to call even a temporary place something. It became The School With No Name.
Marilyn was the teacher for ten years. Then, at the age of 49, she suffered a sudden seizure and was gone, reminding us that our own lives are temporary. But reminding us too, that the impact of our lives can be lasting. By the time she’d left us, Marilyn had founded the Homeless Children’s Foundation and worked with the Traveler’s Aide Society to furnish a room in the new brick homeless shelter as a school. Homeless children, by federal law, have a right to attend the closest neighborhood public school. But Marilyn knew that many families living in the shelter were fleeing domestic violence, drug dealers, loan sharks and some had serious mental health issues. Many of these families refused to let their children leave the security of the shelter. They continued calling the room The School With No Name.
But after ten years, the district decided it was time. In 1997, the school that started under the freeway in a trailer was finally christened and blessed with a name: The Marilyn Treshow Elementary School. I taught there a few years after—kindergarten through third grade in a cheerful one-room school designed to be a haven for children whose families were in crisis. Every day I passed by hundreds of homeless men and women who had slept in the shelter the night before who patiently waited near the front doors. Every day I wished them good morning and they smiled and wished the same for me. Every day I passed by a plaque on the wall near the door of my classroom that read: Marilyn Treshow Elementary School.
It was the most important teaching assignment of my career. It was a time that helped shape the educator I am. It helped me understand the importance of the family, right down to whether or not a single mom had a shot at a living wage and the ability to take her child to the dentist. I had access to the essential support staff and support services that surrounded the whole family: Social workers who connected parents with community services; health professionals like psychologists, nurses and dentists; the Para-professionals, who helped me keep the computers humming with one hand—while wrapping an arm around a crying child.
It’s where I learned that teaching students to sing a funny song was a way to help them like you, and if they liked you, they would trust you and believe you when you told them they could do something they weren’t sure they could do. It’s where I learned that we don’t have these little souls forever. They leave in the night without warning. With these children, I knew I didn’t have even a year to teach them what they needed to know. I had today. Maybe tomorrow. The sense of urgency was the air we breathed at the shelter. What can I do right now? What can I give them they’ll take with them if they disappear tonight?
I visited The Road Home last week after a twelve-year absence. My colleagues at the Salt Lake Teachers Association arranged breakfast for the families, and we all showed up on the playground where I did recess duty so long ago. We served families and their little ones who were starting their day. They said, “Thank you,” we said, “Have a great day.”
All the little kids got on the bus to Washington Elementary, a ten-minute drive away. The Treshow School was closed a few years ago. I walked to my old classroom, which has been converted to offices for the shelter staff. The sink where we washed out paintbrushes and did our art projects is still there. I didn’t recognize much else.
But there’s the plaque to Marilyn. They didn’t take it down when they closed the school. And they shouldn’t. Marilyn’s work continues. There are still so many professionals and volunteers that reflect her quiet, loving spirit that continue to serve these beautiful children. The district still invests in educators who help shelter-parents know what’s available to them and to their students, and connects them with what they need to move their lives forward.
I wish every person who is still stuck in the unholy muck of the corporate school model wasteland could spend a day with these blessed children and their vulnerable families. I wish they could see them as we see them—as human beings full of possibilities, but facing fears and obstacles unimaginable to most of us. They need us to see them as people, not as products on a testing assembly line. Marilyn knew that our mission was to lift them up and put them on a path towards the lives they longed to live, a place they could belong. She knew a school, whether or not it had a name—was the first step on the road home.