When Mike Jones first joined the Lacey South Sound Chamber of Commerce board, many of his colleagues were unaware of how many low-income students live in their local school district. They were shocked to find out that even before the pandemic, 42%, or over 6,000 children and teens were living at or near poverty level. “The people on the board tend to be successful individuals, so they don’t see it,” says Jones, “but once you make them aware of it, they want to know how they can help these kids.”
Jones is executive director of the North Thurston Education Foundation (NTEF), a nonprofit partnership of community members and North Thurston Public Schools (NTPS). The Foundation enhances educational opportunities for students and helps them overcome financial barriers to success. He joined the Lacey Chamber three years ago at the request of Board President Christine Forrey, a fellow alumnus of North Thurston High School. “Chris and I went to school together,” Jones notes. “It’s fun to imagine us sitting in the cafeteria as high school seniors and saying, ‘Thirty-seven years from now, we’re both going to be on the Lacey Chamber board.’”
As a former member of the banking world, Jones is involved with the board’s finance committee as well as fundraising and overhauling the bylaws. His background as a public school teacher and current role at NTEF are valuable additions to the group. “I can share a different perspective,” he says. “Christine and I couldn’t think of even a single person that was homeless when we graduated from high school, and yet today we have 100 homeless kids in our district. Nobody wants these kids living in tents or cars, so the question becomes how the NTEF can help them and how the chamber can, in turn, help us.”
Board members use their skills and resources to support both specific programs and individual students. In one case, Jones was contacted by a middle school counselor about a girl who was coping with a disease that made her hair fall out. The wig she was able to afford was wearing out and the girl began missing school out of embarrassment.
Jones shared the story with Madelin White, a fellow board member and the owner of Merle Norman Cosmetics, Wigs & Day Spa in Lacey. For 25 years, White has been helping women deal with the ravages of cancer, constructing eyebrows where there are none, supplying wigs, and dispensing free advice through the Look Good, Feel Better program. “Within a week, Madelin had a wig for her,” says Jones. “The girl was able to go back to school without being embarrassed.”
Low-income students come from families who often lack the funds for essentials like hygiene products, shoes without holes and regular meals. The NTEF helps them get basic, everyday items. “It’s not their fault,” says Jones. “When I was a middle school teacher, I had kids from all sorts of different backgrounds. I had homeless kids and rich kids, poor kids and those in between. I would tell them, ‘If you need something, just ask,’ but even then, they didn’t want to ask.”
One popular NTEF program with both board and chamber members is Sponsor a Senior, which provides graduating seniors with caps and gowns, yearbooks, and a gift certificate to help them celebrate. “A lot of kids can’t afford an $80 yearbook,” says Jones. “We’re able to do that for them.”
He knows the experience firsthand. When Forrey brought out an old yearbook, she was surprised to discover that she couldn’t find his class photo. “I had to explain that my family couldn’t afford the pictures for me to be in the yearbook,” he says. “I didn’t grow up poor, but we were always careful with how we spent our money.”
Aside from the support board members provide to NTEF, Jones finds it a great place for developing trusted relationships. Recently, his daughter was looking for a realtor to help with refinancing her house. Jones was able to direct her to Becky Carver, a fellow board member and Lacey Branch Manager at Prime Lending. “I trust Becky and I don’t have to worry about anything,” says Jones. “It’s easier when you have a relationship with someone. I’d rather spend money with people I know and trust versus just picking up the phone.”
The pandemic has wiped out many of the chamber’s usual events, but on May 14th they’ll host the 33rd annual Golf Classic at the Golf Club at Hawks Prairie. “It will be a little different than in previous years,” he says. “I’m looking forward to seeing how we can bring our community together. Hopefully, we can get back to doing more things together and seeing each other in person.”
In the meantime, Jones has noticed a change. “Ask any board member now, and they know how many low-income kids we have in our district.”
For more information visit the Lacey South Sound Chamber of Commerce website or call 360. 491.4141.