LAS VEGAS -- Las Vegas is the land of bright lights and big dreams. But not far from the famous strip are the shadows where dreams have been shattered, homes have been foreclosed, and hope is hard to find.
At Whitney Elementary School, 85 percent of the 600 students are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Principal Sherrie Gahn, who started working at Whitney nine years ago, noticed that even then poverty was a problem.
"I saw a little boy, actually there were two of them. They were putting the ketchup packets in their pockets," Gahn recalled.
***Find out how you can help the families of Whitney Elementary School. Click here.***
"The reason I saw them is one was being sneaky, like a kid does. The other one just did it matter of fact. And something told me not to stop them," Gahn said. "Because my typical reaction is a teacher reaction, go over there and make sure I reprimand them for stealing."
"And I chose not to, and I watched them and I went to one of my teachers and I said, 'Why are they doing that?'" she continued.
"And she said, 'They're going to take those home and make ketchup soup. And that's what their dinner is going to be that night,'" she recalled.
Gahn, who grew up in poverty herself, took action. She didn't ask the government for help, but instead reached out to her own community, starting with handing out bags of food.
Today, that outreach continues with the help of the community and donors from around the world.
The bags are filled with non-perishable items that the children can eat themselves without adult supervision to prepare.
The help doesn't stop there. Gahn also helps troubled families pay rent and utilities and helps parents pay for doctors and dentist appointments for their kids.
She believes that if the kids aren't in survival mode, they can be in learning mode.
And it's working. Test scores for Whitney Elementary School students have grown year after year. In 2010, they achieved a key bench mark, "Adequate Yearly Progress," for the very first time.
All the donations for children and families are from charity. Food is delivered on a daily basis because of Gahn's network of supporters from all over the world.
Most of the donors are individuals and small businesses who give from $5 to $2,000 monthly.
Twice a year, students get an entire week's worth of new clothes, socks, underwear and shoes, plus school supplies.
One Rule to Receive Help
If a family needs help and accepts it, there's just one catch. They must register with the local unemployment office, try to find work, and make sure their children are in school.
"I told a mom, 'I'll pay your utility bill, but your child's absenteeism has been way too high. She needs to be in school and then you need to pay it forward,'" Gahn said.
Parents can volunteer in classrooms or in the storage rooms, organizing all of the donations. If they have a job interview, they can get a suit or dress from the clothing room.
Any family desperate for food is welcome to the school's pantry. As fast as the donated food comes in, it goes out, she said.
Today, the level of support Gahn's received to help her elementary school students has surpassed what she ever imagined.
"I just did it when I got here and I saw the need. I just did it and it soared," Gahn told CBN News.
"It literally soared, and I didn't stop to think about what it really took -- or the next day," she said.
"And I will tell you there were a couple of times along the way where I sat crying, thinking, 'I got in way over my head,' and I don't know what I'm going to do because the next day I didn't know how I was going to have food for the kids," she recalled.
"It happened once where we had a food bank that was providing food, and they called me up on a Thursday -- food goes home for weekends on Friday. And they said, 'We have no more funds. We cannot give you your food tomorrow,'" Gahn said. "And I said, 'Then you come tell every child that they're not hungry anymore.'"
"Then I sat and cried and the very next morning, a local philanthropist who didn't even know that had happened, sent me a check for $25,000," she said. "And I thought, I was meant to do that. That's when I knew that I was meant to do this job."
Dreams for Her Students
It has not been easy for Gahn. She's often been overwhelmed by all the responsibility of providing for the children. She said she worries that she's not giving the teachers the instructional attention they need.
But Gahn says the teachers at Whitney are amazing. And the hugs she gets from students make the hard work worth it.
Above all, she wants the students to know their lives can be different than what they are now. She hopes the dreams they develop as students will propel them to successful lives.
Students who once said they dreamed of cutting copper wire or being "a repo man" for a living, now dream of joining the Marine Corps and having careers in technology.
"I think that we are a miracle," Gahn said. "I think we truly are a miracle."
In late 2011, one of Gahn's dreams for the students of Whitney Elementary School came true. The Village of Hope, an after school program for the school's most at-risk students, opened.
The Village of Hope building is on the Whitney Elementary campus, and it is open to current and former Whitney students, as well as their siblings. Some of the services provided at the Village of Hope include after school tutoring, job training, parenting classes, ESL classes, technology club, education through arts and crafts, and activities to build a healthy self esteem.
List of Items Needed by Whitney Elementary:
For Food Bags:
- Individual Pop Top Ravioli/Beenie Weenies/Chili/Stew, etc.
- Individual Pop Top Vienna Sausage
- Top Ramen Soup
- Individual Fruit Cup or Applesauce
- Individual Snack Pack Puddings
- Water, Capri Sun, Juice Boxes, Milk Boxes
- Individually wrapped snacks, cookies, crackers, beef jerky, nuts
- Fruit Snacks of any kind
- Granola Bars, Breakfast Bars, Small Individual Cereal Boxes
- Plastic Grocery Bags
For Clothing Room:
- Socks - all sizes
- Underwear, boys and girls, all sizes, 6 to 18
- Shorts, boys and girls, all sizes, 6 to 18, including husky sizes
- Jeans/Pants, boys and girls, all sizes 6 to 18, including husky sizes
- Shirts/T-Shirts, boys and girls, all sizes 6 to 18, including XXL kids
- Sweaters, Sweatshirts, Hoodies, Jackets
- Shoes, all sizes, children's size 10 up to adult size 10
- Gift Cards
***WEB EXTRA: Whitney Elementary School Principal Sherrie Gahn talks to CBN News' David Brody about the extreme poverty her students are facing, how she got started helping them and found her purpose, and what her dreams are for the future for her students.
***WEB EXTRA II: CBN News' David Brody talks to some of the children who attend Whitney Elementary school, where almost 9 out of 10 children are homeless. The kids share about what Principal Sherrie Gahn's help means to them.
--Originally aired February 24, 2012.