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Nonprofit says homeless students’ needs ever growing in valley

It's been four years since Project 150 was established, and it's grown by leaps and bounds since. Normally, that would be a good thing, but in this case, it means demand for the nonprofit's services are greater.

Project 150 was formed to support homeless high school students in Clark County. The name only hints at the population it affects.

"Project 150 — the 150 represents the number of students (we) began helping at Rancho High School," said Meli Pulido, executive director. "That was December 2011. It started as a Christmas charity project that's now evolved into this charity helping 2,500 homeless high school students and 2,500 displaced and disadvantaged students — those that are not included in the counts of registered homeless. The school district has 11,300 homeless students, kindergarten through 12th grade. Our demographic, those we help, are high school students only."

She said if the displaced student registers as homeless, then the state steps in, and the family is dismantled. Project 150 provides clothing, personal hygiene items and food bags that contain enough to carry a student though the weekend when they don't get meals at school. As the school year begins, it also hands out backpacks with paper, pens and other school supplies.

Some of the items Project 150 provides come from businesses, but many are donations from individuals who coordinate food and clothing drives at work.

"We rely on the community's generosity ... as soon as they learn of a problem, they want to help," Pulido said.

A big part of that help came from the Engelstad Foundation last May. It purchased an 8,000-square-foot building for Project 150, as well as providing payroll for five staff members. As a result, Project 150 now serves 44 high schools in Southern Nevada, along with eight in Reno. There are 650 volunteers, logging just more than 21,000 hours of their time.

"Before that, we were working out of garages and the trunks of people's cars," Pulido said.

A student, 15, who did not want to be identified, said that he had experienced homelessness and that there are "degrees of homelessness. Some people do have a place to stay — a friend's or their grandma's — but (not all the time). ... I see a lot of people who use a tent, which is nice, but you don't want a whole bunch of people to see you because (area residents) may call it in and complain and have it removed or something. It's a very hard decision (to leave home). It's like survival of the fittest. You do what you have to do."

He said Project 150 provides him with clothes.

Pulido recalled being introduced to the charity soon after she retired from human resources for the city of Las Vegas. She attended an event where she learned it was having a shoe drive. The basic need stunned her, she said.

"I went, 'We're collecting shoes? For high school students? What do you mean, they don't have shoes?' " she said.

She met the nonprofit's founders, Don Purdue and Patrick Spargur, learned more and stepped in to lead the effort.

Project 150 also provides scholarships, between $500 and $2,000 each. It gave away 21 scholarships in 2015 and hopes to repeat that this year. It also offers internships for students.

It also hosts special events for students, including its Las Vegas Prom Closet planned for March, when it will give out formal wear. Another special event will supply caps and gowns for those about to graduate. Donations are needed for that.

Throughout the year, its Betty's Boutique, named for Betty Engelstad, lets student "shop" for new or gently used clothing.

"We are not helping homeless 'teens'; we are helping homeless 'students,' " Pulido stressed. "Regardless of where they spent the night, they are 'students.' They are fighting to change their cycle. ... They want a hand up; they want someone to believe in them."

The group officially marked its anniversary with a fundraiser/celebration at Public School 702 at Downtown Summerlin on Jan. 28. Asked what her wish was for the next four years, Pulido paused and took a long breath.

"I wish the number of (homeless) students would decrease," she said, "but, realistically, I know that it won't."

Visit project150.org or call 702-721-7150.

— To reach Summerlin Area View reporter Jan Hogan, email jhogan@viewnews.com or call 702-387-2949.

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