tired high school student using book cover his face

In the 2016-2017 school year, Jim Nick raised well over $117,000 in cash and supplies. This year, he hopes to do it all again, helping even more students along the way.

By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — For the second year in  a row, American Family Insurance Agent Jim Nick is on a mission.

Nick is spending hours a day reaching out to friends, family members, and area businesses, all in an effort to help the hundreds of homeless students who attend school in and around the Wausau area.

Jim Nick
Jim Nick, a Wausau East High School grduate who works as an insurance agent in Wausau, is in his second year of an effort to help homeless students in the Wausau area.

Nick started the program about a year ago, when he learned about a handful of homeless students who had no money to buy basic supplies like socks, underwear, backpacks and school supplies. After a bit of research, the Wausau East High School alum learned the problem was more widespread than he’d ever imagined. Instead of a handful of kids, Nick learned, there were hundreds of students who needed his help.

There currently are 172 homeless students in the Wausau School District and another 162 at D.C. Everest schools, according to state Department of Public Instruction data. That number is sharply up from 10 years ago, when just nine students were identified as homeless in the two districts combined.

And a 2016 study by the nonpartisan advocacy group Civic Enterprises shows that number might be a low estimate, due in part to the challenges in identifying homeless students altogether. Students with insecure housing aren’t all living in shelters. They may be doubled up with relatives or moving frequently from place to place. And they may be housed with their whole families, or going it alone, some living in cars or on the streets.

This study relied on interviews with 44 currently homeless youth and a survey of 158 more who were homeless at some point in middle or high school.

Ninety-four percent reported staying with different people such as relatives or friends, and 44 percent stayed in a hotel, while half had spent some nights in a car, park, abandoned building or a public place like a bus station. Often, schools have a practice of asking for proof of residence only once at enrollment, which doesn’t capture transitions or instability.

A second issue in identifying these students is stigma. Two-thirds of the students in the study said they were uncomfortable telling people at school about their situation.

One common thread, according to the survey: these students have no room to call their own, no desk to do their homework, no bed to rely on at night.

The problem goes well beyond finding a place to sleep. Homeless children are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, more likely to miss school and change schools, drop out, and score lower on standardization tests, according to the research.

Both resources and red tape can be barriers in the way of helping these students. But Nick is looking to change that, for the second straight year.

Last year we were able to help 500 kids, and our community did an amazing job,” Nick wrote on his Facebook page. “We created so much awareness of the problems that we have, and we helped every child in need. We were able to pay off lunch balances so every child could get a hot lunch, thanks to Fred Mueller.”

In the 2016-2017 school year, Nick raised well over $117,000 in cash and supplies. He spent nearly $2,000 on socks and underwear, bought 90 cases of water, gathered dental supplies from local dentists and delivered more than 300 Jansport backpacks, all high quality, in bright colors, to the schools so that students would feel just like everyone else.

The cash is funneled to three area groups that provide services to homeless students, including Blessings in a Backpack, which provides meals for about 1,200 students each week. The supplies are delivered directly to schools, where they are discreetly handed out to the students who need them most.

This year, Nick is partnering with a number of area businesses including Eastbay, Baseman’s Shoes, Weinbrenner/Thorogood Shoes, and others who he hopes will pitch in and provide the basic supplies that are beyond the reach of so many local students.

We need children’s jacket, boots, hats, gloves, snow pants, shoes, and toiletries, for kids from elementary school through high school,” Nick said. “Last year we had a lot of help sorting clothes. If you want to help please let us know.”

How to donate:

Checks can be dropped off or mailed to Nicolet National Bank, 2100 Stewart Ave., or 3845 Rib Mountain Drive, made out to the Jim Nick Help the Kids fund. All money raised will be used to meet the needs of homeless students.

Donation boxes set up at these locations:

• American Family Insurance: 5406 Rib Mountain Dr., Wausau; 129 ½ Alfred St., Athens; 670 Maratech Ave., Marathon

• Dale’s Weston Lanes: 5902 Schofield Ave.

• Hometown Motors: 1700 Bus. Hwy. 51, Wausau

Items being collected:

• New and gently used coats, boots, warm weather gear, backpacks, snow pants, shoes

• New socks and underwear

• Hygiene supplies: Toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, feminine supplies, shampoo, conditioner, soap, body wash