Jesse DeGonia makes a presentation in April during the Webb City CARES Poverty and Homelessness Training session at the Webb City R-7 Student Services Center. – Jana Mackin photos

DeGonia on poverty: ‘Something has to be done, things are getting worse’

Jana Mackin

When a group of 50 adults boarded a school bus in April, they toured the pockets of poverty that pepper nearly 60 square miles of the Webb City R-7 School District. The bus trip was a major part of the Poverty and Homelessness Training session, presented by Jesse DeGonia, director of Webb City CARES. For about an hour and a half, participants saw where poor families live, whether in downtown Webb City or outlying communities.

The bus trip highlighted the half-day seminar during which DeGonia shared his knowledge and insight into the causes, trends, studies and statistics of poverty, along with resources and solutions to make lives better for district students and their families.

While statistics and concepts educate, they fail to illustrate poverty in human terms. The bus trip, on the other hand, provided a real-time window into how families in this area are struggling with increased costs for housing, food and utilities.

Participants witnessed poverty in plain sight whether doubled-up families in tumble-down houses in rural areas without stores or public transportation; campers in fields or a Walmart parking lot; or cheap motels with families crowded into one room.

Whether it’s a hungry child at school or parent suffering needle scarring from repeated plasma donations to help make ends meet, child and family poverty is here and increasing, DeGonia said.

“Something has to be done. Things are getting worse,” said DeGonia.

The organization he leads to help address student needs, WC CARES (Community And Resources Embracing Schools), began in 2011 to provide a daily school presence along with student and family outreach. DeGonia has led it from the beginning. He has also served about four years as local coordinator of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

This is one of the illustrations DeGonia used during his poverty training session.

“It’s expensive being poor,” said DeGonia. “I know people in this room living paycheck to paycheck. They are one paycheck away from homelessness.

“When I started (as homeless coordinator), there were 70 kids identified as homeless. Now there are around 200 kids identified as homeless.

“Since COVID and the decline in the economy, we have seen an increase in homelessness and students in need. We have seen an increase of families working multiple jobs just to make ends meet.”

WC CARES and its partners (faith-based, business and private) help students with their school supplies, food, clothing, transportation, along with other services for kids and their families.

In such a large school district, such challenges are daunting. Yet DeGonia has made the program a bellwether for how to utilize community and school resources to help poor students and families. Other school districts have reached out to DeGonia to learn how to duplicate aspects of WC CARES.

“He is a great figurehead for Webb City CARES,” said Brenten Byrd, assistant superintendent for curriculum.

“His number one concern is how he can help kids be successful at school and support that partnership of our school district on kids’ lives,” Byrd said. “I’ve been to that training. It’s a great training and a great opportunity to go around and see where students come from.”

Growing up in Joplin, DeGonia graduated from Joplin High School in 1992. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Missouri Southern State University in 1999 with a sociology minor. He later earned a micro master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan.

He initially worked for a time in bank management. Then he worked as a case manager helping people with disabilities access resources and in home care. In 2005, he began his tenure as a social worker with the Webb City school district and helped create WC CARES.

Currently, DeGonia serves on the Webb City R-7 Schools Foundation Board of Directors, and United Way of Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas Board of Directors. He has also previously served on boards of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Jasper/Newton Counties, Jasper County CASA, United Church of Christ Family Fellowship, Safe Teens Coalition with the Alliance of SWMO, Webb City Community Health Clinic, Graduating With A Future, and numerous other committees and coalitions.

“I have always been drawn to helping others, especially those in need due to their circumstances,” DeGonia said. “Growing up in poverty and being able to make it through high school, and then attend and graduate from college, made me want to help others even more.”

“If people understand that people are in poverty for an array of reasons, many of which are not their own fault or choice, then we can begin to understand how to help,” he said.

At the heart of DeGonia’s commitment to WC CARES is his hands-on outreach and efforts to educate, secure community funding and resources, and offer direct care services to all district students and families in need of assistance.

“Jesse has a gift of inspiring people,” said April Foulks, district attendance enforcement specialist. “He is very passionate about ensuring our students in poverty are given the same opportunities as every student with the Webb City School District.

“He brings out the best in everyone around him.”

Webb City CARES partners and individuals are asked to start collecting items on the list to participate in the annual school supply drive on Aug. 1.