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Soon, children will be piling onto bright yellow school buses every morning, taking them to their new classes – and sometimes, a new school – for the beginning of the new school year.

Wednesday afternoon, though, the tables were turned. Three busloads of teachers from Manatee Middle and Manatee Elementary boarded buses at the schools’ joint campus, and headed off to visit the children.

Over 100 teachers stopped by four Habitat for Humanity communities, all within the feeder zone for both schools, to “show the flag” and get a headstart on welcoming the students back.

“We’re excited about the start of school, and we want the kids to be excited, too,” said Manatee Middle School principal Pam Vickaryous. She led a group of teachers clapping and chanting, “it’s great to be – at Manatee,” and even some of the kids joined in.

The children, and also their parents, were already excited about the start of the new school year in many cases, judging by the turnout of kids and parents, mostly mothers, who turned out in the playgrounds at each community to greet the caravan of buses. Returning students greeted favorite teachers with hugs, while their younger brothers and sisters, just starting school for the first time, hung back shyly.

Alex Garcon, 5, was one of the shy ones, although she was happy to accept one of the popsicles or Icy Pops that were passed out at each stop, and had a big smile for the camera. Her sister, Stephanie, 16, who attends Lely High School, brought her to the park, said Alex will be a new pre-k student.

“I’m definitely happy to be back,” said middle school student Darica Boussiquot, 13. “I need my education.” She gave a hug to computer technology teacher Olivio Pozo, who had taught her in sixth grade, even though she was now the middle school of an upperclassman, going into the eighth grade.

At the Trail Ridge community, a few of the male teachers got into an impromptu game of catch, tossing a football back and forth with some of the kids, perhaps doing a little scouting for their athletic teams.

Manatee Elementary fourth grade teacher Debbie Thompson talked with Dorena Charles, 9, who will be going into the fourth grade, but didn’t know yet which class she would be in, while Dorena sucked down her popsicle.

“We’ve never done this before,” said Thompson, “and I’ve been teaching here 12 years. It’s great we’re getting to visit Habitat.” Families living in communities developed by Habitat for Humanity form a significant percentage of the student body at Manatee elementary and middle.

Both are Title 1 schools, meaning that over 90 percent of the students qualify for the schools’ free or reduced price breakfast and lunch programs. For many of these students, summers away from school can be a time of increased hunger, an additional reason to welcome the return to school.

Habitat for Humanity provides houses for lower income families, giving them the chance to own their own home. As part of the deal for receiving a reduced-price home through Habitat for Humanity, every prospective Habitat homeowner is required to contribute 500 hours of sweat equity, physical work on their own or another Habitat home.

“It’s a lot of hours” that Habitat clients are required to put in, said Rev. Lisa Lefkow, executive director of development and administration for Habitat for Humanity of Collier County. “Add it up, and that’s over 12 weeks of full-time work” – about a quarter of an entire year.

Lefkow stressed that Habitat homes must be earned, and it is critical for the long-term viability of the program that homeowners can and do pay their mortgages, to keep a flow of funds for future homes. She was greeted with a hug at the Victoria Falls neighborhood by community leader Gedeon Anis.

“We are very happy to have the teachers come” and welcome the kids for the new school year, he said.

Habitat donor relations representative Andrea McKenna also rode along on a bus, and told the teachers before they got to the communities how having a stable housing situation makes education easier for the students.

“Once they move in, the children show an eight percent gain in reading, and 16 percent in math,” according to a study performed by FGCU, she said, with further gains after they have been living in their own home for an extended period.

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