School Outreach Worker Becky Handa sits smiling at a table with another woman.
School Outreach Worker Becky Handa assists a local resident, Connie Spears, with paperwork.

Children Services caseworkers work to enrich education and keep families together with School Outreach program

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JACKSONVILLE, Ohio (WOUB/Report for America) — Whenever the kids at Trimble Elementary/Middle School have a problem, the first person they come to is Becky Handa.

The walls of her room are lined with shelves and large plastic tubs, each containing something a kid might need at school. There’s a tub for backpacks. New shirts. Headphones. An entire section dedicated to hygiene products and deodorant. And several baskets of snacks.

It is the office of a school outreach worker. Kids come here at all hours of the day to get what they need, whether that be a note for the doctor or just a quiet place to eat lunch. There are about six hundred children in the building, and Handa estimates she’s seen most at least once.

“Six hundred seems like a lot,” she said, “but really, it’s not.”

Describing just what Handa does can be challenging given the breadth of her role. In general, she aims to remove barriers between children and their education. What those barriers are can range from the minor — spilled milk on a shirt — to the serious, like medical issues or lack of food. In a district where there aren’t many places to turn for advice, she is there to help.

The work involves extensive communication. Handa doesn’t just find kids what they need and hurry them off to class; she asks them plenty of questions, often as a follow up to previous conversations. She also texts regularly with the parents of the kids she sees, helping sort out logistics and occasionally sharing the wisdom she herself has accumulated as a mother.

“I just love you so much,” one young single mother wrote to her after a lengthy text conversation in which the two discussed the woman’s anxieties about her son.

“She’s a great momma,” Becky affirmed as she typed out her reply.

Shelves full of paper, glue, clothes, and other school supplies.
The walls of Handa’s room are lined with school supplies.

Handa is an employee of Athens County Children Services, which tends to draw attention primarily for its role in removing kids from households deemed unsafe. The School Outreach Program, which now operates in six schools throughout the county, is different. It aims to reduce the need for court involvement and keep families together.

Kent Felts, who has been the outreach worker at Alexander Elementary School for 10 years, said the program’s goal is to “utilize and be a hub for community resources.”

“We kind of identify what the repeated needs are, and then try and come up with ways where our community can kind of help itself,” he explained.

That doesn’t mean that outreach workers are never involved in removals. They are mandated reporters and can be called to testify against parents in abuse, dependency and neglect cases — which, Felts acknowledged, is sometimes tricky to navigate.

But he also said that the first goal of the outreach program is to engage in “the preventative side” of Children Services’ work: identifying potentially problematic situations early and finding a resolution that does not involve removal.

“Once we are able to engage with the family and show them that we are not threatening, that we’re not there to tell them what to do, we’re there to assist them and help them with resources, I think it builds a trust,” he said. “You have to kind of earn that.”

That trust comes easily to Handa, who is a lifelong resident of the Trimble/Glouster area. Outside of her work duties, she is president of the Tomcat Bridgebuilders, a group that funds scholarships and local projects. She has also organized the afterschool program Girl Power for several years and recently created an equivalent for boys called Band of Brothers.

Joe Brehm, the director of environmental education at Rural Action, collaborated with Handa on Band of Brothers.

“It sounds so simple, but it’s so important,” he said. “She’s a part of this community.”

He added, “People know where to find her. Kids know where to find her. Kids know what they can depend on her for.”

A photograph shows a family gathering with adults and children smiling.
Becky Handa in a family photo with her eight siblings, her daughter and son, and her niece and nephews. [Theo Peck-Suzuki | WOUB/Report for America]
That sense of constant accessibility may sound overwhelming, but it’s also been part of Handa’s life since childhood. She was the second oldest of nine siblings and grew up in a single-parent home. That meant she wound up helping to raise her seven younger brothers and sisters.

“Becky was always cleaning,” her sister Heather recalled. “She still does. Always cleaning, making sure everyone had full stomachs.”

Even now, Handa tends tirelessly to other people. “If she’s having a bad day, you wouldn’t know it,” observed Heather. “She doesn’t let it affect what she’s doing.”

Handa helped care for her siblings until she became pregnant, at which point she and her partner moved into their own apartment. She was 15 when she gave birth to her first child, but stayed in school while working to support herself.

During that time, she met with a social worker from the Help Me Grow program. That relationship would prove life-changing.

“She was like, you could go to college. You know that, right?” said Handa. “Nobody in my family had ever been to college.”

Handa made the high school honor roll and decided to follow in her mentor’s footsteps. She enrolled at Ohio University and went on to earn a degree in social work.

Now, she’s paying that good deed forward — every day, and often well into the evening.

“I have to feel really good about it to actually be able to relax when I’m off work,” she said. “If I have things that I know are not settled, then I will just work.”