Topper brings empathy to Vancouver schools position

By Susan Parrish, Columbian Education Reporter

Published:

 

Numbers of people helped

o 18,000 requests for basic needs met

o 20,000 students receiving Friday backpack snacks

o 12,000 parents in learning academies

o 3,381 connections with community agencies

o 2,000 parents and preschools in early learning programs

o 800 students connected to health resources

o 300 students receiving dental services

On the Web: On the school district's website, click on the community tab.

Alishia Topper knows what it’s like to be a hungry student with no place to call home.

It makes her a good fit for her new job with Vancouver Public Schools, forging partnerships and finding resources to help students and families who need a hand.

“Homelessness, hunger, domestic violence, drug abuse,” said Topper, who is also a Vancouver city councilor. “Every barrier a kid might have, I have experienced. It makes me more empathetic.”

Topper’s new title is the Family-Community Resource Center director of strategic partnerships. The district has resource centers in 13 schools. Each center serves as a clearinghouse for families in the district’s highest-poverty and highest-mobility schools. They’ve helped thousands of students and their families, resulting in better lives and improved academic performance.

Numbers of people helped

o 18,000 requests for basic needs met

o 20,000 students receiving Friday backpack snacks

o 12,000 parents in learning academies

o 3,381 connections with community agencies

o 2,000 parents and preschools in early learning programs

o 800 students connected to health resources

o 300 students receiving dental services

On the Web: On the school district’s website, click on the community tab.

Topper makes presentations to service clubs, churches and other nonprofit groups whose members express interest in lending a hand by providing food, shoes and clothing, housing information, dental care or volunteering as Lunch Buddy mentors.

“A kid comes to school with all this baggage,” Topper said. “We’re helping to alleviate those needs to help them succeed in school. By these experiences, they are already at a disadvantage. It obviously connects with me on a personal level.”

‘Pull yourself up’

Topper’s mother became pregnant at age 14, and by 15 was a single parent with an eighth-grade education. She worked 80-hour weeks to feed Alishia and her younger sister. When Topper was in the first through sixth grades, her mother dated an abusive, violent man. Topper recalls living in fear.

“Growing up, we either slept on couches, mattresses in someone’s garage or my Grandma’s house,” she said.

She grew up in Portland, but by middle school her family moved to a double-wide in Amboy. They didn’t have garbage service. They ran out of water. Topper didn’t want to invite friends over. She was embarrassed by the plastic bags of garbage stacked in the yard.

“The big thing is feeling ashamed,” Topper said.

At the beginning of her junior year of high school, Topper moved out of her mother’s house and stayed with high school friends. She graduated from Battle Ground High School, where she found a passion and talent for running. She was awarded an athletic scholarship to Washington State University in Pullman. Later she earned a master’s degree in nonprofit management at Portland State University.

After college, she was a shelter director at Share and then worked as director of development at the Fort Vancouver National Trust. In 2013 she was elected to the Vancouver City Council at age 35.

“My mom was always saying, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You don’t ask for help.’ ”

But Topper knows that a little assistance can make a big difference in a child’s life.

“Schools can make a bigger difference, creating stability for families,” Topper said. “Schools are the hub to connect community, neighborhoods, businesses and faith-based communities,” Topper said. “The centers remove the stigma from getting a little bit of help if you need it. It removes that fear. You’re in school. You’re in a safe place.”

Long lines

In August, when the district’s resource centers and partners offered free backpacks, school supplies, shoes and haircuts for students, more than 2,000 people began lining up hours before the doors opened.

“That event really opened my eyes to the need for basic needs like school supplies and shoes,” Topper said.

Tom Hagley Jr., the district’s chief of staff, was on the committee that hired Topper.

“Alishia is very upbeat, positive and deeply interested in the commitment of building assets for kids, families and neighborhoods, which is what the FCRC is about,” Hagley said. “That kind of empathy can spur a passion for the work and really help a person understand the situations that are faced by so many of our kids and families who are impacted by poverty.”

“Mom always told me to learn from her mistakes,” Topper said.

Now 51, Topper’s mother is a truck driver in the North Dakota oil fields. She never earned her diploma, but she did get her commercial driver’s license and a license to carry hazardous materials. She’s made her own way.

And so has Alishia Topper.