When Paul Dunbar applied to be a community outreach manager at Freedom Prep Academy, the job description did not include being a chauffeur or working on holidays.
But being a liaison between the school and the neighborhood sometimes calls for Dunbar to go above and beyond. When it does, he does so gladly.
When Dunbar was hired in April 2014, he spent hours driving around Westwood and Whitehaven, familiarizing himself with the area and the challenges some families face. For example, there was the mother who had trouble getting her son to the elementary school after the school bus stop moved further from her home.
She talked to Dunbar, who tried to negotiate a solution with the bus company. But with no fix and the end of the school year approaching, he offered to give the boy a ride to school. One ride a week turned into a few days a week and before he knew it, he’d become an unofficial chauffeur.
But in the process, he got to know the mother and the boy’s grandmother, who had lived in the neighborhood for nearly 50 years.
“In a roundabout way, I learned the history of the community from stakeholders like her,” said Dunbar, who is named after the African American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
Then, there was the pregnant mother with six children, two of whom went to Freedom Prep. When Dunbar met them, the family lived with relatives in a small house. The next time Dunbar saw them, the mother had given birth and the family was crowded into a single motel room.
Despite their less than ideal living conditions, the students were still kids. “I remember one day, they were so excited because the motel was going to put a flat screen in the room.”
The motel room didn’t have a microwave or anything on which to cook, so the children mostly ate unhealthy, usually packaged foods.
This is the invisible baggage that low-income students bring to school, issues that middle-class families don’t have to confront.
“We cook and don’t think twice about it,” Dunbar said.
Knowing what students are up against makes it easy for him to go the extra mile.
Over Thanksgiving break, he got a voice mail message from a foster mother. She wanted to transfer her son from a nearby middle school to Freedom Prep. Even though it was a holiday break, he returned the call – much to the foster mom’s surprise and delight. He was able to help get her son into the school. His reward has been the mother’s eternal gratitude.
“Every time I see her, she can’t stop thanking me,” he said.
“She says, ‘You don’t know how much you changed my life and changed his life.’”