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Montgomery County college students who are experiencing food and housing insecurity have a new lifeline.
Gwynedd Mercy University and Montgomery County Community College teamed up and introduced the College Student Basic Needs Program (CSBNP).
“The College Student Basic Needs Program helps under-resourced college students experiencing food and housing insecurity to stay in school, succeed academically, graduate and obtain better paying employment in the future,” said Wendy Gaynor, CSBNP’s inaugural executive director.
An affordable housing crisis, a growing population of unhoused youth and young adults and disputes over homeless encampments in places such as Norristown and Pottstown are among the growing problems in Montco. Advocates say the county’s need for a program such as this is greater than ever.
“As one might imagine, if you’re trying to cram for a bio exam, it’s really tough when you don’t know if you’re going to be able to pay next month’s rent,” Gaynor said.
John Kepner, a Gwynedd Mercy board member, first thought of the idea of CSBNP during a 2017 board meeting. He was reading a committee report detailing the difficulties students face securing stable housing and food.
Stunned, Kepner investigated the issue and reached out to officials at Montgomery County Community College. At the time, both colleges were already beginning their own food pantries. The cogs in Kepner’s head began to turn.
“It was just people coming together and thinking there’s this idea we can address and it’s easier to address collaboratively, and that’s proven to be the case,” Kepner said.
In order to justify a broader partnership, both the college and the university participated in a study to determine the obstacles facing their students.
“What we concluded was that there was kind of a perspective that this was just food, but we couldn’t just address food insecurity,” Kepner said. “We also had to address housing insecurity and the other basic needs that under-resourced students need in order to succeed.”
That’s when the partners decided to expand the list of collaborators. CSBNP now boasts a seven-member consortium, including Manna on Main Street, Pottstown Cluster of Religious Communities, Family Promise Montco, Montco Anti-Hunger Network and Your Way Home Montgomery County.
During the pandemic, the group obtained funding and made significant investments on their own campuses.
At Gwynedd Mercy University, a small residential building was dedicated to a new food pantry. The school built a ramp for students with disabilities so they could access the fully-functional food pantry. They also developed a housing scholarship fund.
Suzan Neiger Gould, executive director of Manna on Main Street, which has been providing services and food to the community since 1981, said the organization’s role in CSBNP is to allow a way for students to “shop” online. Manna uses a software called SmartChoice.
Students can order based on their individual or household needs. All of this is completely free.
“We use our food resources to put together their orders, for most college students, that’s about 60 pounds — their grocery orders. And then Manna delivers those orders to the colleges,” Neiger Gould said. “It is a huge need and it is a very hidden need and certainly it’s something that we see every day at Manna. But if you are out in the community, you have no idea who was experiencing food insecurity.”
To her, the beauty of SmartChoice — and CSBNP — is its discretion. Asking for help can be overwhelming.
“They’re able to take care of this without having to search it out and I think that is so important for people because everyone wants to be treated with dignity and both of these colleges have invested in this program because they know that need,” she said.
In 2021, Montgomery County Community College also began operating two Wellness Center locations at its Blue Bell and Pottstown campuses.
The Wellness Center provides 24/7 access to mental health services, scheduled counseling and food through its Stock Up for Success pantries.
“There was a growing concern and need for our students, for both their mental health and their needs around housing and food as well as some other non-academic needs,” said Dr. Nichole Kang, executive director of the Wellness Center.
Equipped with a sensory room, bean bag chairs, a vertical garden and cubbies, the Wellness Center in Pottstown is a place to relax and ask for help.
Stock Up for Success food pantry located at the Wellness Center of MCCC’s Blue Bell Campus. (courtesy of Montgomery County Community College)
Kang said the center offers a “transformative experience.” In a given week, the staff serves 40 to 50 students through in-person visits, appointments and online sessions. Kang said they saved some people from failed semesters — and even evictions.
“They can get everything here with people that they trust, that they can form relationships with,” Kang said. “We have connections to their instructors, their academic advisors — so really, the whole campus is providing this wraparound experience and making sure that those students that could have fallen through the cracks before are getting the supports that they need.”
With these support structures already in place, Kepner said the investments that happened in “parallel” created a strong foundation for CSBNP.
“You can look at it as kind of an umbrella supplying additional services that they could better provide collaboratively than they could provide on their own,” Kepner said.