MIDVALE — When Connie Crosby walks into the Road Home overflow shelter in Midvale, she's attacked by a flurry of pink and blonde. Barefoot and bouncing with energy, 9-year-old Gwenn throws her arms around the Canyons School District employee and clings, grinning, to her leg.
Crosby smiles and pats the little one on the head. "Hi sweetie," she says and her eyes flash with affection. As the district's homeless liaison, she spends her days making sure Gwenn and her little friends have all their educational needs met.
Crosby is busy these days. With the economy down, more families than ever before have been thrust out on the street. The shelter, 59 W. 7300 South, is wall-to-wall beds. Any free space has been filled with makeshift cribs. After school on a Friday, there were children playing tag, coloring pictures and watching a Disney movie on a small TV in the corner.
Some might find the job stressful. Crosby can't just load all the children on to one bus. According to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, children living in transition have the right to stay in their school of origin, so she ships out kids to schools all over the Salt Lake Valley. She also finds them school supplies and helps them sign up for — and arrange transportation to — extracurricular activities.
"I'm kind of like a soccer mom, but I have 145 kids," Crosby said. At least, that's how many students she was in charge of last week. As is the nature of homelessness, these things tend to fluctuate daily. She usually meets new families about 30 minutes before she's got to get their kids on a bus to school.
Children at the shelter really do look at Crosby, who has sandy-brown hair and a kind face, as a sort of mother. Their parents lined up to sing her praises to the Deseret News.
"If my daughter is unhappy or things aren't going well at school, Connie has the answers," said Carmen Coombs, a 48-year-old single mother. When her 10-year-old came home begging to attend an after-school program at the Boys & Girls Club, Crosby informed her, with regret, that the program was already over capacity. The next day, though, the woman who, with tears in her eyes, Coombs calls "my angel" had somehow, someway managed to sign her up anyway.
"It's hard to be in this situation because you want everything every parent wants for their kids, but you just feel helpless," she said. "Connie has given me hope for my daughter's future."
If a student is ill and needs to come home early, forgets his homework or needs poster board and markers for a school project, Crosby is there, said Steven Raider, 55, who has five children. She finds the kids shoes and coats and outfits them with backpacks, too. Raider calls her "sweet, sincere" and "a big part of the reason my kids have been successful in school despite everything we've gone through."
She's also, he adds, unassuming. And it's true. Crosby doesn't have much to say about herself.
"I just want these kids to have as normal a school experience as possible," said Crosby, who experienced some measure of family financial strife as a child herself. "They already deal with so much."