From students sleeping on floors at home to wearing shoes to school that are worn beyond repair, Chatelah Brown has seen it all.
A social worker with more than 20 years of experience, she works closely with the students of East Atlanta’s Phoenix Academy, a nontraditional high school that prepares teenagers and young adults for college and life after graduation.
In an attempt to nurture the whole child through emphasis placed on social and academic development, Brown and the entire team of faculty and staff at Phoenix Academy work to offer a comprehensive learning experience to their student body of roughly 300 pupils.
Brown said her role specifically involves looking after the students who regularly lack the basic necessities of life that many take for granted.
“When I turned to the district, we had students that were homeless. We had students that were living in extreme poverty. We had students where grandparents or great-grandparents, who are on fixed incomes, living in senior housing, are raising their grandchildren or their great-great grandchildren,” Brown said. “If you can dream it, if you can think of it, I had (to handle) those situations.”
The hardships kids face in their personal lives can take a toll on their academics as well. Brown said that being without the quintessential supplies that promote personal hygiene and cleanliness may discourage students from coming to school on a regular basis and potentially lead to poor performance in the classroom. Similarly, lacking access to the resources necessary to ensure proper nutrition and adequate sleep can prohibit students from focusing on their studies.
Brown said that many of her pupils also struggle with their mental health, struggles that are often fueled by systemic inequality and communal unrest.
“I can’t imagine being 16 and have witnessed three of my friends get murdered. I can’t imagine losing my mother at the age of 12, violently. I can’t imagine my father being incarcerated and my mother working two jobs and (having) to take care of my younger siblings — I can’t imagine that,” Brown said. “(As a social worker) I empathize with my students, and I try to build support for my students.”
These obstacles can make finishing high school a difficult feat for many of Atlanta’s youth, a feat that district-appointed social workers struggle to manage alone. With a limited number of resources at their disposal and a seemingly never-ending need for new supplies, social workers’ hands are often tied when the time comes to administer goods to their students.
However, Purposity, a nonprofit intended to make community service efforts easier across the country, partners with social workers to help resolve the needs of students accustomed to seeing broken promises.
“Purposity is God-sent. I tell them that all the time,” Brown said. “Just to create a concept like that and to make it so accessible for everybody — I can’t explain it.”
Purposity is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating simple ways for ordinary people to help those around them. Accessible through an app designed for smartphones and other mobile devices, the organization allows everyday civilians to allocate money to people and causes they’re passionate about within their respective communities.
“The beauty of Purposity is (supporters) are directly helping this person in need with something specific that (they) fully did (themselves),” said Blake Canterbury, co-founder and CEO of the company.
Based in Atlanta, Purposity began as an attempt to solve the impending hunger and poverty crises affecting youth attending public schools in the city. With a background in tech, Canterbury wanted to develop a product that would dismantle the boundaries separating schools, nonprofits and families in need from the helping hand of the general populace.
“Almost every school in the country is facing this problem, and almost every nonprofit is, as well,” he said. “And we knew we didn’t solve the problem (in making Purposity), but we felt like found a filled need.”
Once downloading the app, users can select the causes, aptly referred to as “needs”, that they want to satisfy, all of which Purposity receives through partnering school systems and nonprofit organizations that regularly engage with the individuals and families needing aid most.
After meeting a preselected need, users will be alerted when their purchase is shipped and reaches its rightful owner. Purposity also covers shipping and handling fees, so supporters are only responsible for the cost of the physical product.
“Our belief we started with was the idea that you would help your neighbor if you knew they were in need,” Canterbury said. “And so, our thought was, ‘If school districts are great at setting local needs, these local nonprofits in the community have the long-term infrastructure for moving people from poverty to sustainability or putting systems around special needs children.’ So, let’s partner with great organizations already doing great work, and let’s drive people to support the individuals that they’re serving.”
While case managers and social workers like Chatelah can request users donate funding for school supplies and other academic materials, Canterbury said the premise of Purposity is to supply beneficiaries with essentials like food, shoes, clothing and furnishings for a permanent or temporary home, ensuring families have access to basic necessities before meeting other needs. Canterbury said this approach helps assisted students think less about struggling to make ends meet and more about their academic performance in general.
“If two kids are sitting side-by-side in the same classroom, but one child doesn’t know if they have food to eat when they get home, or they’re self-conscious in the classroom about the holes in their shoes, they’re still not getting the same education as kids sitting right beside them, whether they’ve got the access to books or technology or not,” Canterbury said. “And so, we’re focusing on making sure kids have food to eat and clothes to wear — the essentials.”
Purposity has now grown to serve communities across 27 U.S. states and aims to expand its outreach even more in the coming years.
Brown said that her student’s lives have been greatly impacted since Purposity began collaborating with the school and Atlanta Public Schools at large, a partnership that she said predates her time working at Phoenix Academy.
With donations from Purposity users, kids are able to take home the items they need to help alleviate their everyday struggles. Thanks to supporters’ generosity and Blake’s leadership, Brown said students at Phoenix have access to snacks, coats and umbrellas for inclement weather days, personal hygiene products and other fundamentals that often go unnoticed by those who haven’t been forced to do without.
Brown also said that Purposity makes donating easy for those who want to make a difference in children’s lives but may not have had convenient ways to do so in the past.
“A lot of people want to help, but they don’t know how to help,” Brown said. “And Purposity shows them the way that they can help.”
In contrast to events like back-to-school drives that are only hosted once each year, Purposity gives school districts and nonprofits a platform to submit needs all year round, serving as a consistent resource that students like Brown’s can rely on when experiencing hardship.
Brown said that poverty can be an isolating experience, especially for K-12 students who are known to feel greater pressure to fit in with their peers. Assistance from organizations like Purposity helps students improve their academic performance while raising their self-esteem at the same time.
“Some of the things that I hear (from my students) will make the average person just tear up and cry and sympathize,” Brown said. “I don’t sympathize with my children because I don’t feel sorry for them. I empathize with them because I love them.”