Two buses that take homeless children to school in Orange could stop running if money is not found soon to operate them.
The costs had been covered by the YWCA of Central Orange County for buses to take children who live in motels throughout the county to Project Hope School, the only public school in Orange County tailored to homeless children. County teachers run the classrooms at the First Presbyterian Church of Orange, and the YWCA feeds the children breakfast and lunch and gives them packages of food for their families.
The YWCA of Central Orange County decided in November to stop funding the bus service because the nonprofit agency could no longer afford to pay $72,000 a year to transport the 39 children. The agency will continue to fund the food programs at the school.
The decision was heartbreaking, but necessary to help keep the YWCA solvent, said Assistant Director Cathy Mizejewski. Mizejewski is worried about the students who likely can't get to school without the free rides.
"Transportation is a key component to this program," she said. Even if teachers are plentiful, "if we can't get the kids here, it doesn't make a difference."
Tony Sauceda, a single father of four staying at the Lincoln Inn in Anaheim, said he can't imagine what he would do without the bus service. Because it's door-to-door, he can go to his factory job and leave the two older children watching the younger ones until the bus comes.
"I'm just hoping something is done to keep the buses running," said Sauceda, who does not own a car or have a driver's license. The family has moved from motel to motel since 1998, when its apartment was demolished for a redevelopment project.
"Something must be done," he said. "My kids have to go to school."
The YWCA's decision to cut the funding surprised school officials. The Orange County Department of Education received only 30 days' notice, and has promised to keep the buses running only until the end of January, said Hedy Kirsh, the department's director of student support services.
Kirsh has met with a few potential corporate sponsors but is not sure whether there will be enough donations.
"The school will not close," Kirsch said. "We are trying to seek other means to get the kids to the site. We know this is an important service."
The school district is accepting donations to pay for the bus service through a fund established at the Orange County Community Foundation.
Project Hope School teaches 45 children from kindergarten to eighth grade. Similar schools have been controversial nationwide because they segregate homeless children from other students. Supporters argue that the schools make homeless children feel more comfortable.
"They are now going to school with their own peers. If they wear the same clothes all week long, it's OK. A lot of them are doing that. If they don't take a shower because the motel shower is broken, it's OK. Everyone gets breakfast and eats it. There is no stigmatism," Mizejewski said.
The school, she and other supporters say, is important because homeless families move from motel to motel. According to most city codes, they can stay at a motel for only 28 consecutive days. If the parents do not have transportation, they must enroll the children in a new school with each move.
But no matter where the family lives, the children can go to Project Hope School because the bus routes accommodate their moves, Mizejewski said.
If there were no bus transportation, a few families with cars might be able to drive the children to school, but most would not, she said.
The YWCA's finances have suffered since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because donations to causes unrelated to the attacks are down, said Laura Wilkes, regional field manager. New leaders of the Central Orange County YWCA have sought to cut expenses, she said.
"This is a particularly difficult time for all nonprofits. To survive, you have to make very wise decisions," Wilkes said. "If you don't have the money, you can go deep into debt."