In this week’s TALK series, McLean Today sits down with Emma Blankenbaker [pictured above front], chair of McLean Matters, and Savitha Sagar, Vice President of Programs at the McLean High School PTSA [Parent Teacher Student Association].  McLean High School has approximately 280 students, nearly 12% of the student body, who are at, or below, the poverty level. McLean Matters — a student support program committee that is part of the PTSA (Parent-Teacher-Student Association) — aids those students in need with fundraising efforts to secure supplies and donations from the McLean High School community.

Q. What are some specific projects McLean Matters does to help the underserved students?

Blankenbaker: At McLean High School, 12% percent of our [student] body is at or below the poverty level, They qualify for free lunches, support activities and computers. In order to support those students, we find out automatically through the counselors what these students need and are lacking. We often provide new backpacks and scientific calculators because those are pretty expensive. You have to have those for geometry and above. Around the holidays, we work with the community to collect gift cards for groceries and winter break needs, whether it’s clothing or other necessities. The counselors put all of those into envelopes and send those home with the student families to enjoy over the winter break.

Sagar: One of the things we help with is that typically there’s a fee or tickets for major events. The counselors also have a list of students who are in need. It’s kept confidential for the student purposes so we don’t know who those students are. There is coordination that happens between the PTSA and the school to ensure that there’s an iron curtain to protect the students identity but at the same time the help still goes through from PTSA to the school so the items are distributed. So if they come in and say, ‘Two, three kids are planning to go to prom and need tickets, and we’d like to help them out’, then the PTSA help with funding to get what they need.

Q. When did McLean Matters start?

Sagar: About four or five years ago, we didn’t necessarily have McLean Matters. It was more of if there’s a need, someone would come and ask at PTSA but it was a long process and we didn’t plan for it. It was more of an ad hoc. Both Emma and I came from Longfellow Middle School. Emma was actually leading an effort at [Longfellow] While I was treasurer there, she was the chair of Longfellow Loves, which is a similar program to McLean Matters, but it was catering to Longfellow students and middle school students. When we both came to McLean, because our children were going to high school, we were trying to figure out what programs we wanted to formalize. Emma and I knew that McLean Matters could be something that we can actually make a program, not just an ad hoc. Emma jumped in. She took the lead as a chair for that committee. We started coordinating, developing relationships with the school. Whether it’s the counselors who are in touch with the students, and some of the Student Services staff who also work with students, the psychologists, and the social workers. When we started the program, I was president elect of the McLean PTSA. And then as the president, I helped formalize the program. I’m now helping as the VP of programs and at this point, Emma has been running this single handedly coordinating with the PTSA and parents as chair of McLean Matters.

Q. How has the community helped with the McLean Matters program?

Sagar: We are very lucky to have a community that is very welcoming and actually wants to help. One example is that Emma had found out about a situation with one student who was a sophomore. She was working and supporting her mother, who was also working. This situation happened right here in McLean. We don’t think these things happen here. Emma had talked about this situation, not to tell a story, but to bring awareness to the community so people are aware that we have neighbors who might be living in this same situation as this sophomore. And that brought in such an immense and tremendous amount of support. People were calling and saying, ‘Hey, can we just write a check to this family?’ Because these are the things where you can’t write a check to the school. You can’t write a check to the PTSA. But you can actually help the families in need or the students in need. So I’d say we’re acting more as catalysts. We’re a nonprofit organization. The school has its educational organization. So we can’t necessarily write checks ourselves, but we can actually build awareness and collect information. And we collect gift cards that can be passed on to the school which then goes to the families.

Blankenbaker: All of the proceedings go directly to the families. We don’t collect anything, it’s all given to the families and the people in need.

McLean High School

Above left: Savitha Sager, Vice President of Programs at the McLean High School PTSA and above right Ellen Reilly, McLean High School principal.

Q. What are the challenges McLean Matters faces?

Blankenbaker: I haven’t faced any major challenges other than when we go to an organization and ask for donations for school supplies. Occasionally, they will decline. But there are so many other places we can contact that it doesn’t really inhibit what we’re able to bring in. And then as far as the winter gift card drive, I would say it’s just the opposite. It’s just overwhelming how generous the community is.

Q. Share with us your favorite part of working with McLean Matters?

Blankenbaker: I would have to say it’s the people that I get to work with in the PTSA. The best part for me is working with the administrators at school and I get to work with the counselors as well. I meet all kinds of neat people that are willing to help. It’s just so heartwarming when I put out a message through the PTSA newsletter. People all the time are writing to me directly saying if you need any help collecting clothing or gift cards, let me know. There’s always someone willing to help.

Q. Are there future projects you’d like to see get off the ground with McLean Matters?

Sagar: Yes actually. As we were looking at the students in need, one of the things we were looking at was scholarships figuring out how we go about doing this. So one thing that we’ve been discussing was how do we make these scholarships be in place, not just for one year, but continue on year over year. So this year, we are moving forward with the scholarship funds for seniors and we wanted to not just do it for seniors, but actually focusing primarily on seniors who actually have the need. So that way the seniors who actually are in accepted and enrolled in a four year accredited college, get the scholarship and it’s something that the school actually designs in terms of the qualification and things of that nature, because they are much more aware of the students, not just the need but also their qualification if they meet the criteria and everything. So that’s something I want to say we’ve been successful in actually establishing it this [past] year. And that way, it moves into the budget next year and so on and so forth. So that’s something that has come out of McLean Matters. I’d say it’s a positive thing.


Q. When you are not busy being the Chair of McLean Matters, what do you do?

Blankenbaker: I have a therapy dog and we do therapy dog visits at McLean High School during the lunch periods. I love hanging out with my family and I love to cook everything.

Q. Do you have a favorite restaurant in McLean?

Blankenbaker: I would have to say Aracosia. I love the appetizers, especially the dumplings, the potato leek dumplings.

Sagar: The potato leeks are my favorite as well from Aracosia.

BY: Dania Reza

Dania Reza is the social media content curator for McLean Today. She is a senior at McLean High School and is the design editor-in-chief of her award-winning school news magazine, The Highlander.

Do you know someone in McLean who would make an interesting interview for TALK? Click here to nominate them.