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Churchill offers student more than just academic education

In high school, all you really want to do is fit in. Make some friends. Make good grades and maybe make a difference. Churchill High School senior, Caitlin Vela, fits in, but she also stands out. She’s got plenty of friends, and she’s got the grades.

Her AP Biology teacher, Teresa Hodan, says, “I consider her a leader. She’s in all AP courses and has A’s in all of them.”

And while Vela is your typical teenager on the surface, it doesn’t take long to learn, she’s so much more. She loves playing the guitar, going out, and working 30 hours a week at Bill Miller Bar-B-Q. But Ms. Hodan knows something, very few people do, about Cat.

“I don’t have a stable place to stay. I am a homeless youth, “said Vela.

It’s a reality more than 1400 NEISD students are dealing with daily.

Ms. Hodan learned about Cat’s situation around Christmas. They talked about her complicated living situation and how despite everyone’s best efforts, Cat could no longer stay with family.

“I knew she had these struggles, but she’s brilliant,” said Hodan. “I couldn’t let her live on the streets—there’s just no way possible.”

So Ms. Hodan started working with Churchill’s Student Teacher Assistance Network (STAN) counselor, Kathy Johnson. They made sure Cat had food from the school’s food pantry, and they worked on finding her a stable place to live.

Cody and Damaris Landers were in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Damaris is a teacher. Cody is a preacher. And they had an extra bedroom. The couple has been working with Churchill’s counselor for a few years now.

“They came in knowing my situation, and they were willing to help, and I didn’t know them, and I was really surprised that some couple were like, ‘Hey yeah , we will take you. Why Not?’” said Cat.

It didn’t take long for everyone to get along. The Landers couldn’t believe how social she was and how much she wanted to get to know them. Cat was surprised someone who didn’t need to, would be willing to take in an 18-year-old student.

“They just remind me of this statement that many people make where family isn’t blood, but family is who you choose,” said Cat. “They have done so much for me that I think they’ve definitely earned just me seeing them as family, and I appreciate them for everything they’ve done.”

Cody said, “She’s like a daughter to us. You just see in her life, she continues to take initiative and progress and move forward, and I think that is something that inspires me.”

While being homeless doesn’t define her, it’s a part of her story and a part of her drive.

“For students who struggle, I want them to know that no matter how hard it gets, there is always a way. That sounds easier said than done, but I promise you there is always, always, always a way.”

Caitlin plans to attend The University of Texas at Austin and major in Chemical Engineering. She wants to work in the pharmaceutical industry. One thing that will help on that journey, a scholarship she just received specifically for homeless youth.  It also comes with an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington DC. There, she will be working with other homeless youth, so those on the outside can better understand the unique struggles homeless students have to deal with.

To find out more about NEISD’s commitment to homeless youth in our district, click here.


Posted by Evan Henson
Posted on 03/02/2020