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Organizations aim to ease burden
Many students receive lunch help
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With school starting Thursday, parents, teachers, faculty and students are getting ready for a new school year. Forms are filled out and paperwork submitted, though not all of them concern enrollment.

"A whole lot of people in our community are living very close to the poverty line," said Dawson County School Superintendent Damon Gibbs. "We, as educators, have to meet the needs of our students on a daily basis."

According to Linda Byrd, director of nutrition for the school system, more than half of the district's students are on some form of food assistance program.

"In May, systemwide we had 53 percent of students on free and reduced lunches," she said. "We haven't collected any data or applications for this year's school year, so there aren't any numbers for August yet."

It's an issue that local organizations are trying to address.

Dawson County Family Connection works with local organizations and social workers to help families in need. One of these ways is through the annual "Stuff the Bus" drive, which collects donated school supplies for students in need each year.

"The social workers work closely with the local charities and everyone comes together to see what they can bring to the table to help these families," said Family Connection Director Nancy Stites. "We always work with the social workers to identify children in need. The partnership with these agencies is wonderful to identify students in need."

According to numbers from the "Georgia Kids Count" survey, funded by the Georgia Family Connection Partnership, nearly 13 percent of Dawson County families are below the poverty level, which qualifies them for the free and reduced lunch program.

The survey also showed high numbers in Dawson County schools, with Kilough Elementary at 59 percent of students on free and reduced lunches, Riverview Elementary at 58 percent and Robinson and Black's Mill at 56 percent.

Dawson County High School is at 46 percent, which actually worries Stites more.

"At that point, you begin to wonder if people aren't signing up for the services," she said. "[The high school] has always been low, and a lot of the time it's because parents stop doing things for their children at that age."

According to Stites, 80 percent of these free and reduced lunch numbers are students with free lunches, not just reduced pricing.

"Some people are uncomfortable asking for aid, but we do our best to bring the parents into the schools to make them as comfortable as possible," she said.

However, Byrd believes that the county's sense of community may actually be showing lower than accurate numbers.

"Dawson County has always been a close community of family and church where we help each other," she said. "I think, in a lot of circumstances, there are families helping other family members that are having financial troubles instead of asking for government help."

It's an issue that Byrd believes that, while the help from local organizations has been well-received and much needed, will continue to be around until economic improvement hits.

"As the economy has gotten better and more people are working, I think we may see a reduction in the free and reduced numbers here," she said. "Local jobs hiring people locally will be the key to helping these families in the long run."