A few years ago, San Luis Obispo teen Liesl Eibschutz was taken aback by the number of children, elderly people and others who attended an annual Christmas dinner for the homeless at the local Odd Fellows Hall.
Eibschutz, a recent San Luis Obispo High School graduate and longtime volunteer at the event, also noticed several of her classmates among the crowd.
“Usually, if I’m at a homeless event, I try to make myself scarce” so as not to embarrass her peers, Eibschutz recalled this week. But that year, something drew her to seek them out and learn more about them.
She said the students told her their worries about others learning of their situation.
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“And they didn’t know if college was attainable,” she said.
Eibschutz soon learned through a high school counselor, Kerry Ingles, that few resources existed on campus for homeless students and other students in need. Ingles, who was not available for comment this week, told her there had never been a club at the high school to address students with significant financial needs.
“She said, ‘I’m starting it,’” Eibschutz’s mother, Sheri Eibschutz, recalled.
In 2012, Eibschutz founded SOS — Strengthen Our School — to raise awareness and money for emergency needs, basic necessities and college scholarships. The most recent data available from the 2012-13 school year showed that 26.3 percent of San Luis Obispo High School’s 1,444 students were socioeconomically disadvantaged.
“I think that everybody wants to help,” Liesl Eibschutz said. “They just need to be provided with an easy means of doing so.”
Thanks to Strengthen Our School, San Luis High counselors distributed about $2,500 worth of gift cards for clothing, gasoline, groceries, school supplies, sporting goods and movie tickets during the last school year.
The school’s already existing Needy Student Fund, used for emergencies, has maintained an $800 balance thanks to Eibschutz’s program, and she said that $20,000 was raised for college scholarships.
Of that, about $13,500 was distributed to 14 students in June; the rest was kept toward next year’s fund.
“I promise to use these funds wisely,” reads a letter that Eibschutz received from one of the scholarship recipients. “The cost of college might not be so bad for me and my family.”
Eibschutz said most of the recipients plan to attend Cuesta College, but a few are heading to four-year schools — as is Eibschutz, who plans to study neuroscience and global health at Duke University, with a goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.
Eibschutz recently received recognition for the SOS program from the Helen Diller Family Foundation, a supporting foundation of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, and Marin and Sonoma Counties.
She is one of 15 teenagers to receive the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award, honoring Jewish U.S. teens for “exceptional leadership and engagement in service projects to make the world a better place.” (Tikkun Olam is a central Jewish precept that means “to repair the world,” according to the organization’s website.)
She will receive $36,000 to be used in support of her social project or to further her education. Eibschutz said she plans to put it toward her tuition at Duke.
Eibschutz said she believes the SOS program will continue and prosper at San Luis Obispo High. She’s working on a manual this summer to help students continue it.
“That will be our goal,” San Luis Obispo High School Principal Leslie O’Connor said Wednesday. He said students who received support benefited several ways from the program.
“The value of them understanding that other students in a club on campus cared about their fellow human beings — that emotional impact was as great as the financial impact,” he said.