West Lincoln's Keys honored for work with homeless students

Dionne Keys is the executive secretary and registrar at West Lincoln Elementary School. But to the school’s students and families who are experiencing homelessness, she’s much more than that.

She’s the person who makes them feel at home at West Lincoln Elementary School.

“Sometimes that means asking questions, listening to their concerns, meeting families where they are and assisting and connecting them to the appropriate people,” said Keys, now in her fourth year at West Lincoln. “I have been able to reach these families because I take time to listen, to greet them in the morning and ask them how they are doing. I ask about their weekend and their family and because of that there is a sense of trust. The students talk about these conversations with their parents, which opens lines of communication and allows me to offer services we have that can support them during their time of need.”

It’s this kind of empathy and dedication that led to Keys recently being honored with the Community Partner Award from the Lincoln Homeless Coalition. Lincoln Public Schools Homeless Education Coordinator Ellen Reilly nominated her.

“West Lincoln's student population includes a significant number of students who experience homelessness, and Dionne is often the first point of contact for these families as they work to enroll their children in school,” Reilly said. “Dionne’s patient, thorough and empathetic response helps families feel at ease and as though they have a partner in their children's educational success. Dionne's work at LPS is invaluable in the service to our school district’s most vulnerable population.”

West Lincoln Principal Scott Schwartz sees this every day.

“Dionne forms a strong connection with families as they are enrolling in school or when they call in to school,” he said. “Because of this connection, families will open up to her to share any needs that they have.” 

LPS students are identified as homeless through a self-identification process. This school year there are 255 students identified as homeless. But, Reilly said, she believes the true number is more than 500. 

Keys said the biggest misconception about homeless families is that they’re in that position simply because of “poor decision making.” Because of that, she said, others believe it could never happen to them.

But Keys knows the homeless students and their families who attend West Lincoln - and the circumstances that led to their current situation. She also knows their resiliency, which is her simple answer to the question of what’s most rewarding about her work with these students.

“Seeing them show up every day.”

Published: November 18, 2021, Updated: November 24, 2021