Sarai Exil

Stores provide basic needs for students and reduce barriers to learning

When Sarai Exil signed up for AmeriCorps, which connects young adults with communities in need, she said she wanted to go wherever she was most needed.

She ended up at Columbus City Schools’ Linden-McKinley STEM Academy in the fall of 2011, five hours from her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Exil committed to doing her best, but she worried she wouldn’t be able to help students during the year and a half she was there.

“It wasn’t because I didn’t have enough energy or enthusiasm,” said Exil, 29. “It wasn’t because I didn’t have enough going on in my head or my heart or my soul. It was just because there are so many non-academic barriers that our students are facing in our school system.”

Those barriers came up again in the summer of 2016, as Exil, who graduated from Ohio State University a year earlier with a communications degree, listened to Columbus City Schools teacher Nicole Hebert-Ford talk about how she wanted to create stores in schools where kids could get basic needs. Exil thought back to her two years at Linden-McKinley, where she routinely found herself buying basic supplies for students. She introduced herself to Hebert-Ford, and Student Success Stores were born.

The stores are set up in schools and stock items such as food, clothes, shoes, body wash, bras and underwear, tampons and toiletries. Even though they’re called stores, all the items are free; all students need to do is set up an appointment or visit the stores during open periods.

In July, the stores celebrated their third anniversary. Four more schools added the stores this summer, bringing the total to nine. The schools were first placed in middle schools due to the changes facing students at that age.

“Middle school is such an awkward time, and sometimes these kids don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Exil said. “We’re expecting our students to come in ready to learn, and we’re expecting so much of our teachers that somehow they’re just going to miraculously take away all these nonacademic barriers.”

The Student Success Stores and the storage center on Morse Road are staffed by volunteers. Students can visit the stores every school day.

For those around Exil, the stores and what they do continue to amaze.

“The fact that Sarai identified that need in some of our most impoverished schools and helps provide those students with support is incredible,” said Matthew Goldstein, CEO of Besa, a nonprofit that has helped supply the Success Stores with volunteers to work in the stores and warehouses. “It feels wonderful to be a part of her vision.”

About 67 percent of the students at Wedgewood Middle School live below the federal poverty level, so as soon as principal Diane Campbell found out about the Student Success Stores, she pushed to have one added to Wedgewood last school year.

“The store is near and dear to my heart, because it’s something I would have needed as a kid,” Campbell said. “To be able to provide something that is a necessity means a lot.”

In addition to serving as the president of the Student Success Stores board, Exil also works at Big Lots as its philanthropy and events specialist. While it can be tough for her to balance the Student Success Stores on top of her full-time job, the impact it has on the community is something that makes it all worth it.

“The most beautiful thing about the stores is that I can sit down with someone and talk about it with them and they immediately get it,” Exil said. “They understand the importance and want to try to help. That’s the Columbus way.”