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The Sunnyside Foundation has provided $20,000 in Emergency Relief funds to Sunnyside Unified School District families.

In many ways, the Sunnyside Foundation is operating as it always has: supporting the students and families of the Sunnyside School District. But with the continued presence of COVID-19, the education nonprofit is fundraising and calling on their community like never before. 

In March, when schools shuttered and students began at-home learning, the Sunnyside Foundation faced a wide range of new educational challenges ranging from a lack of supplies to the home environments themselves. 

“There are so many needs you don’t think about, but once you remove that classroom environment, you realize students might not have desks or workspaces or utilities,” said Kerri Lopez-Howell, executive director of the Sunnyside Foundation. “We’re finding the biggest need is that we have to stabilize the home environment.”

One of the most pressing issues was the lack of home internet for many of the families of Summit View Elementary School on Tucson’s south side. At the beginning of the pandemic, Sunnyside moved buses out to the community to serve as mobile internet hotspots. But as spring turned to summer, the school district realized they couldn’t have the buses sitting out and idling in 100+ heat all day, nor was it financially sustainable. So they began brainstorming how else to help and eventually raised funds to purchase internet devices for 350 homes, which aided 450 students.

“I was not aware there was absolutely no internet access to the families. That blew my mind,” Lopez-Howell said. “That just seemed so unfathomable in 2020 that there was a community in our city that was out of range of internet reach… Each principal has their allocated amount of hotspots, but the foundation got to participate by making sure every student at Summit View got to have a device. So it wasn’t that a select group of students got a device, we covered the entire student body at Summit View.” 

However, alleviating this “digital divide” is only one of three funds the Sunnyside Foundation is raising money for, with an eventual goal of $50,000 for their Sunnyside Gives Day on Sept. 22. The other goals are their Excellence In Education program, which funds various programs throughout the school district, and their Emergency Relief Fund, which helps Sunnyside families affected by the pandemic. 

The Excellence In Education program helps 21 schools and 16,000 students maintain access to field trips, extracurricular activities, fine arts, music, science, engineering, counseling and physical education.

The Emergency Relief Fund aids Sunnyside families in a variety of ways in order to “stabilize home learning environments,” including connecting water and air conditioning to homes, increasing internet bandwidth and helping families from being evicted. 

“The main need really is removing the stress from the families so the students can focus on their learning and education,” Lopez-Howell said. “When students used to go to a classroom or a school, it was a controlled environment. But now we’re asking students to learn in an environment where there are potential utilities being turned off or eviction notices... We’re seeing bills turned into our Relief Fund that are all the way back from March.”

In total over the last six months, the Sunnyside Foundation has provided $20,000 in Emergency Relief support, as well as gathering 1,000 backpacks for SUSD students, feeding 800 families with food boxes and providing 100 free Girl Scout memberships to southside families.

All of this fundraising has been organized over social media via awareness campaigns, t-shirt sales and by showing donors exactly how their money is being spent. The Sunnyside Gives Day is also being organized over social media, and includes several Sunnyside board members taking pledges to incentivize reaching the $50,000 goal. Pledges include matching donations and even dyeing their hair. 

“I have been so moved from the generosity coming not just from our community, but from our teachers and staff,”  Lopez-Howell said. “There’s been really high engagement from the southside community as a whole. It’s been a full-on group effort.”