Sherrie Gahn knew Whitney Elementary was different from most public schools the moment she set foot on its graffiti-littered campus.
If the endless line of broken light bulbs weren’t clue enough, there was the homeless family living in the crawl space under one portable classroom to remind the principal she sure hadn’t drawn an assignment in Summerlin. In fact, a teacher survey labeled Whitney a public school outpost to be avoided.
For all that, the 48-year-old Gahn felt spiritually at home in a neighborhood bursting with troubled families, leery immigrants, and achingly poor children. She was raised in hunger by a single mother in Buffalo, N.Y., and carried the poor child’s pride and drive with her into the teaching profession.
Some people search their whole lives without understanding the meaning of their existence. In a flash, a light shined in Gahn’s heart. She instantly understood the greater importance of the lessons her hard-working mother had taught her.
“I knew I’d come full circle,” she says. “I understand this population. I know what it’s like to be poor.”
Sherrie Gahn was meant to be at Whitney Elementary.
And so she set to work. Gahn replaced those broken bulbs many times, at one point carrying a bag of extra bulbs in her car, before the lights around the school remained glowing. After repeated paint-overs, the graffiti vanished from the school property.
In this desert of plenty, little grows outside the school. With its 560 students, Whitney sits like a cheery blue oasis flanked by shabby apartments and rent-by-the-week motels across Boulder Highway near the bottom end of Tropicana Avenue. This is east Las Vegas, a part of the valley most citizens rarely see.
Area neighborhoods are notoriously gang infested. Many of the motels are known more for their methamphetamine sales and prostitution than for their sparkling accommodations.
More than half the students at Whitney speak no English. A majority lives in marginal housing. Even those with homes often have no utilities and no place to shower. Some have no place at all and car camp in the parking lot of a nearby drug store.
It’s the children’s hunger that should shock you: 87 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch. Most of the kids come to school hungry. Some have been spotted stealing ketchup packets just to have something to eat when they leave for the day.
Nearly five years ago, Gahn stepped into the breach. She knew hungry children do not excel. But she also understood that her small staff of dedicated teachers couldn’t be asked to also cook breakfast.
So, with help from allies like English Language Learning specialist Kim Butterfield, Gahn started networking with local businesses and concerned citizens. The food, clothing and hygiene items began pouring in and were consumed almost as fast as they arrived.
Gahn’s hairdresser, Kari Thormodsgaard, drops by regularly to cut hair. Eye doctor John Lawyer gives free exams on Mondays. A local clinic provides immunizations. Panera Bread delivers piles of loaves every morning. The principal cherishes the school’s expanding list of supporters, which ranges from donations from Station Casinos to gift cards from a nearby Denny’s.
The children have toys at Christmas thanks to the school, and volunteers Norma and Ed Coleman play Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
The children get a bag of food to take home for the weekend, and each is outfitted with a new pair of shoes.
“If we service the whole child, the child is going to learn,” Gahn says. “Basically, we’ll feed and clothe anyone.”
Including children from other schools. Including neighbors. Including a little old lady who’d heard of the generosity at Whitney.
The children hate to see the school year end. They know better than anyone that life is very different outside this east-end oasis.
Some will watch their parents pawn the new shoes to buy drugs.
Butterfield says, “We can’t say no to the children just because some of the parents will sell the stuff.”
Many other kids will lose a parent to prison or deportation. The horror stories never end in the desert of plenty.
“The kids are suffering,” Gahn says simply. “We have to help them. I just want them to know there’s something bigger out there.”
It’s a lesson a poor girl from Buffalo learned long ago.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0295.