Soiree for Students fundraiser Thursday

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

Communities in Schools of Henry County (CIS) is raising money to improve opportunities for homeless students in the area.

The organization’s inaugural Soiree for Students is set for Oct. 6 at 6:30 p.m., at Pilgreen’s Steakhouse, 1720 Lake Dow Road in McDonough.

CIS is heading into its fifth year in Henry County, providing school supplies, eye exams and other services for students. Executive Director Sharon McNeal said Thursday’s event is designed to raise money to provide services for at-risk students in the county.

“That’s ‘at risk’ of dropping out of school,” said McNeal. “We offer programs to encourage students to stay in school and graduate. We are working specifically in Henry County High School. Our main emphasis is to concentrate on the ABC’s, and that’s attendance, behavior and coursework. We do this in order to help kids stay in school and graduate on time.”

Tina Marie Giarla is the scheduled keynote speaker for the event. Giarla, McNeal said, was 13 years old when her father passed away from a drug overdose. Around that same time, Giarla’s mother went to jail and was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison, making Giarla an unaccompanied homeless youth.

“Unaccompanied homeless youth are youth experiencing homelessness while not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian,” explained McNeal. “She knew education was her way out of the situation she had found herself in.”

Giarla persevered through her circumstances, graduating high school in 2011 with a 3.7 grade point average. She attended Salem State University, in Salem, Mass., where she obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She then became a Community Organizer and Legislative Advocate for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, and is also a national advocate speaking on behalf of unaccompanied youth.

Giarla said she treasures the opportunity to share her experiences with others in situations like those she faced when she was in school.

“There could not be a better role for me in this world,” said Giarla. “I love the work that I do. I was given the help, the investments, and the education I needed to help me pull myself up from my bootstraps. I know firsthand how it is to feel alone and disenfranchised. In my role, I am able to learn from someone every single day. I have molded myself from my experiences and at times, my experience has served as the best wild card. I am able to speak for and represent an invisible population of individuals who are experiencing homelessness or at-risk of, and it is amazing to see a community come together to create systematic change trying to stop those very people from falling in-between the cracks of our system. It is exhilarating.”

Giarla noted that approximately 1.6 million other youth around the country are considered homeless, and said she’d like to see more investments made in the lives of the next generation for housing, support services and education.

“Some of these programs exist already,” she said. “The real question is, are they adequately funded to appropriately meet the demand? More and more youth find themselves at-risk of homelessness or already experiencing homelessness. This is an epidemic that does not discriminate. It can happen to anyone, and if they are not aware of the services available to them, or if there are not any services available, an entirely different path is paved for them to travel along, a path full of trauma and detrimental sacrifices. The sooner we as a community can step up and intervene before any more suffering occurs, the better their outcomes will be.”

The Soiree for Students will include a silent auction featuring gift baskets and student artwork. Tickets and sponsorships are available for the event. For more information, call 678-432-4499.