School sanctuary

New ‘Panther Den’ at Washougal High to help students, families in need

The Panther Den will offer students all clothing from undergarments to Columbia Sportswear jackets that were donated by the company, Mary Pursley, special education teacher at WHS, said.

The Panther Den graphic was created by Washougal High School senior Daisy Hall. Mary Pursley, WHS special education teacher, will oversee the den but students will be responsible for organizing, stocking, taking inventory and filling orders. Graphic courtesy of Daisy Hall

A new “Panther Den” at Washougal High School is poised to provide a sort of sanctuary for students in need.

WHS officials will host a grand opening for the new “Panther Den” resource center, which will provide students with basic needs like food, personal hygiene products and clothing at 3:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 14.

Mary Pursley, a special education teacher at WHS, said there is definitely a need for the new resource “den” at Washougal High.

“As a teacher, you have kids in your room that you’re looking at and and you’re like, ‘Did you eat this morning?’ and they say, ‘No.'” Pursley says. “(We ask) ‘Why not?’ And they’re like, ‘We don’t have food.'”

Now, teachers will be able to help students get the basic necessities. Students in need can fill out a form for the Panther Den and choose specific foods or items of clothing, such as a jacket, belt or shoes.

Washougal High School Associate Principal Sheree Gomez-Clark said students can’t learn if they’re hungry.

“And I think that’s what maybe a lot of people outside of education don’t realize, that that really is a huge barrier for students accessing education,” Gomez-Clark said. “So, this is one way for us to break down that barrier for them and also be able to allow them to do it with pride, as well. Nobody else needs to know — you need a coat, we’ll get you a decent coat that teenagers would wear.”

To eliminate any embarrassment, students will be able to tell school officials if they’d like to have clothes picked out for them, or if they would rather schedule a time to visit the Panther Den and try on and pick out the clothing they need, Pursley said.

The den is open for students to get what they need, as well as what their family needs.

“When it starts up, what they get will be based on the form and if they need something specific they are able to write it in,” Pursley said.

The idea for the den process is that student volunteers or teacher aides will pack bags according to the forms they recieve, and then, at the end of the day, the student who filled out the form will be able to grab it from the den or office, or have it delivered to them before the end of the day.

“It’s really convenient for them, so that it’s not out of their day or anything like that,” Pursley said.

The Panther Den motto is “for students, run by students.”

“So this is a resource for our students, but we are going to have students that are running the program, looking at the forms, filling orders and looking at the inventory,” Gomez-Clark explained.

Although the den will be organized by students, Pursley will oversee the project and act as a filter to keep student information confidential when they turn in forms.

The orders the den receives will be organized by student identification numbers and can be picked up at the den or in the main office.

“It’s a level of confidentiality, especially since it’s run by students,” Gomez-Clark said. “We want to make sure that we’re honoring people’s privacy. Some kids don’t care and are very open, but for some kids, it’s a private issue.”

Washougal High School students with different talents have also come together to contribute to the den. WHS senior Daisy Hall designed a graphic in class for the den and worked with two metal shop students to create a steel cut-out of the design.

Hall said she thinks that the den will help the Washougal community because students will be able to get the resources they need, without having to advertise their needs.

“Students don’t want to be starving,” Hall said. “They can go get food if they need it, and take it home to their family, where there might not be any food.”

Once the den opens on Feb. 14, a link to the Panther Den website will be on the WHS site, and parents will be able to find a list of donations the den needs, as well as the form that students fill out if they need any items. Pursley added that parents also are able to fill out the form for their student.

The Panther Den will accept donations that can be dropped off at the WHS main office.

The den is currently in need of personal hygiene products, such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, bars of soap, lotion, hand soap, shampoo, conditioner (both travel and regular sized) and deodorant.

Food wise, den organizers say they need cereals, granola bars, refried beans, baked beans, rice, instant potatoes and canned meats.

As for clothing, any new undergarments and socks for boys and girls are needed.

The den organizers have already had an issue with receiving expired food. They encourage people to check the expiration dates on their donations before giving them to the school.

Washougal freshman Lauren Bennett helped organize the clothing donations and chatted with other volunteers about which clothes the den should keep, versus donating to another agency.

“Teenagers, all they want to do for the most part is blend in,” she said.

Bennett said she thinks the den is important because it would be hard to focus on school if you’re sitting in class wondering where your next meal is going to come from, or when you’re going to get a new shirt.

When she helped create food donation boxes at her church over the winter holidays, Bennett said she realized many families are experiencing tough situations on a temporary basis.

“Something may have happened — Dad lost his job or Mom got laid off — and they’re just in a pinch for the moment. So, (programs like the den) help (families) bridge during those times,” Bennett said. “It’s not because (the students) or their parents made poor choices, it’s just that something happened and they need help really quickly.”

Gomez-Clark said the idea for the den sprouted after Carol Boyden, former principal at Excelsior and former associate principal at Washougal High School, retired last year.

Boyden worked closely with students and their families who needed food or clothing, and would provide them with the resources to fill their needs.

“After (Boyden’s) retirement, we really recognized this year that it was a huge loss not having her here,” Gomez-Clark said. “We realized we needed to have a kind of systematic process for meeting those needs for our students, so even if somebody did leave, the program could still essentially run itself and we’d have access to that.”

Gomez-Clark has met with the Panther Den team — which includes Bob Barber, pastor at St. Matthew Lutheran Church, of Washougal; Mark Castle, associate principal at Excelsior; Margaret McCarthy, from UNITE!; Michele Mederos, counselor for students in Excelsior programs; Pursley; and Brenda Watson, secretary at Excelsior — about twice a month since the beginning of the school year to get the den up and running.

There is a Family Resource Center at Hathaway Elementary School that meets a lot of the needs for our community, Gomez-Clark said, but the Panther Den will be the first such resource at the high school level.

“We’re pretty heavily focused on getting it up and running, and I think our long-term goal is to have a sustainable program, so it doesn’t matter who is here, it will continue to go on, and be self-sustaining, with the involvement of the community,” Gomez-Clark said.