Harrison County School District (2023)

When it comes to exemplifying an outstanding and impactful school-community partnership, the Rotary Club of Gulfport-Orange Grove continues to raise the bar. Rotary has proven that even a small group of dedicated volunteers can contribute to the overall success of a large school district and have a powerful impact on the lives of children, especially those who are homeless or come from low-income households.

The Rotary Club of Gulfport-Orange Grove and the Harrison County School District (HCSD) formed a bond nearly 40 years ago. That partnership started with the distribution of free dictionaries to elementary schools in its service area. As HCSD grew in student population in recent years, and with all schools in the district now qualified for Title I federal funding, Rotary’s role has also expanded with the addition of innovative collaborative projects that have benefited thousands of students and their families.

Most Rotary projects in HCSD are aimed at promoting literacy among students. In 2022, Rotary donated 1,300 dictionaries to ten elementary schools in HCSD. The club focused on third graders, because they must pass the Mississippi Third Grade Reading Assessment to be promoted to the fourth grade. When the Rotarians delivered the dictionaries to the schools, they hosted fun and engaging trivia games to show the third graders how to use the books to improve their spelling skills, search for definitions, and learn fascinating facts.

Rotary spearheaded another literacy project to encourage students to read after school, while increasing access to books for readers of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Rotary worked with HCSD to open Little Free Libraries, which are small neighborhood book exchanges that are installed on school grounds. Rotarians have kept the libraries stocked year-round so children in the community can enjoy the books at any time.

When Hurricane Zeta damaged many Little Free Libraries in 2020, Rotary teamed-up with a high school senior and Eagle Scout candidate to refurbish 13 of the structures. They also coordinated collection drives to replenish the supply of books. Over the years, Rotary has worked with community volunteers, local businesses, and carpentry students in the Harrison County Career & Technical Center to build the libraries. This innovative partnership is a win-win because the vocational students from all three high schools in HCSD can sharpen their construction and teamwork skills, while Rotary can have the libraries built at a faster pace.

Rotary has another strong connection to high school students in HCSD. Rotary has sponsored the Interact Club at Harrison Central High, including providing college scholarships and sponsoring leadership academies for seniors. In 2022, the program expanded to include West Harrison High. The Interact students have held relief drives for hurricane victims, collected food and supplies for the animal shelter, participated in bell ringing for the Salvation Army, and assisted with the Christmas for Kids shopping spree for children in HCSD whose families could not afford to purchase gifts.

The latest Rotary service project is the Backpack Buddies program to assist families in HCSD who are dealing with food insecurity, especially during weekends and holidays. Rotary members would gather monthly to collect and pack bags with non-perishable food items. The food is delivered to several elementary schools on the last Friday of the month so students will have something to eat when they are not in school. Rotary also purchased clothing and personal hygiene products for Comfort Closets at three schools so children in need can have basic necessities and clean clothes to wear at school.

The enduring bond between the Rotary Club of Gulfport-Orange Grove and HCSD is expected to grow even stronger as members are constantly asking: “What else can we do to help?” Rotary is made up of only 35 members, but the club’s contributions have been highly effective and far reaching. HCSD is grateful to have an outstanding partner in education whose unwavering support has made a remarkable difference across our campuses and throughout the community.