‘Very safe, calming place:’ Orange County SAFE program helps ease students’ burdens

Every middle, high school has a coordinator and social worker

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Orange County Public Schools offers confidential resources for students in low- and middle-income families through the district’s SAFE program.

SAFE, which is an acronym for Student Assistance and Family Empowerment, offers a coordinator and social worker at every OCPS middle and high school in the district.

“It could be, ‘Hey, I need school supplies. Hey, I need food. My utilities are off, can you assist with that? Can you connect me with resources?’” said Corey Bennett, SAFE coordinator at Jones High School. “Like the weight of the issues they are dealing with exceed far more than I could even fathom. Homelessness is huge. We have a huge transient population. They move from place to place, are dealing with a lack of resources, lack of money, to just have a stable housing situation.”

Bennett told News 6 the school offers a pantry called the Tiger’s Den, which is stocked with food, hygiene and school supplies and other basic necessities. The school works with community partners for greater needs, like housing issues or counseling issues.

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“I’ve had kids that were in need, they couldn’t go home the night before, may have a situation at home where they’re not able to go home, so we find resources in the community where they can stay,” said Bennett.

Bennett started his career in education as a history teacher. He’s been the SAFE Coordinator at Jones for four years now.

“I always said, I’m going to go work with kids, and I’m going to be that adult I looked for that I didn’t have, not necessarily at home but just at school,” he said. “The person you see in front of you right now has not always been this person. I’ve been through some tough times. We all have as adults. But I’m a living testimony you can do better. You can improve.”

While Bennett stresses he doesn’t hold the title of counselor, he serves as a safe person for kids to talk to.

“People know when you care. Someone that’s willing to listen, someone who’s not going to judge you when you do share. Someone who’s going to give you advice if you need it, if you ask for it,” he said.

Bennett says no two days are the same, and he spends a lot of time checking in with students. Aaliayah Watson is a junior and tells News 6, she probably wouldn’t even still be at Jones if it weren’t for Bennett’s support and guidance.

“Mr. Bennett, he’s a friend, a best friend, a da, yeah a dad, so he’s just kind of taken that role that other people can’t have,” Watson said. “It’s a very safe, calming space for me because he is probably the only staff member on campus I can trust with information and they won’t go and tell my parents.”

Bennett says students today are dealing with challenges, like social media, that previous generations didn’t have.

“Without this program, our kids would be lost, because let’s face it, the business of school is teaching our kids,” Bennett said. “We have to address every part of us that makes us human. So that means we have to talk about mental health. We have to deal with the social person. Those things that aren’t necessarily in a book per se. I really feel at the root of everything our children go through, is this desire to be loved and feel loved and to be seen and be heard, and if we just did that then I feel like maybe my position would be non-existent because you wouldn’t need me.”

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About the Author:

Julie Broughton's career in Central Florida has spanned more than 14 years, starting with News 6 as a meteorologist and now anchoring newscasts.