(CNN) -- Come Christmas time, most children put together lengthy wish lists for toys and goodies for Santa to deliver.
But for those whose wishes are listed on The Sugarplum Sled's website, the requests are much more modest.
One child asked for a single Snickers bar. Another wanted an Amazon gift card, then added "anything will be appreciated." Others asked for sheets and towels.
The Sugarplum Sled's charitable drive was organized by Erica Hill and four other New York City moms to benefit homeless and underprivileged students in two Manhattan schools, PS 76 and 188.
When Hill reached out to the schools and obtained the wish lists of over 800 students, she was heartbroken to see children who need so much ask for "such basic things" as a hat or a coloring book.
"It's heartbreaking, in a city with so much money, that there are any homeless kids," Hill says.
In New York City alone, over 114,000 students were identified as homeless in the 2018-19 school year, according to New York State Education Department data posted by Advocates for Children of New York, a local nonprofit organization. That's one in 10 students, and 85% of them are Black or Hispanic. The trend has grown over 70% in the last decade, the data shows.
National data on the phenomenon paints an even more dramatic picture.
A national crisis, and a vicious cycle
Homelessness among students is a national crisis, and one we don't talk about enough.
Data from the Department of Education shows that over 1.3 million students experienced homelessness in the 2016-17 school year, the highest number ever registered.
Homelessness among students is especially concerning because it impacts their chances of breaking free from their situation and securing a better future.
Research suggests that homelessness is a risk factor for low educational attainment just as low educational attainment is a risk factor for homelessness.
A recent study by Chapin Hall found that youth not graduating from high school are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness as young adults.
On the flip side of that, the impact of homelessness on educational attainment is undeniable, with only 64% of homeless students graduating high school compared to 77.6% of poor but housed children, and 84% for all students, according to a study by Education Leads Home, a national campaign focused on improving educational outcomes for homeless students.
No place like school for the holidays
The holidays are especially difficult for homeless students, says Barbara Duffield of SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit organization focused on the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness.
Not only there is the psychological aspect of not having the same experience as fellow classmates, who get to decorate their homes, receive presents and celebrate -- there's also a very tangible consequence. School is for many homeless students a source of stability, food and basic needs. When school is closed, Duffield explains, that all goes away for some time.
How can you help?
A year-round emergency
While this is the season for generosity, it's important to remember that homeless students need year-round support.
For example, think of the summer months when schools are closed, and times when inclement weather forces students to not go to school. When school is not in session, homeless students lose a reliable source for food, social connection and other basic needs such as access to showers and storage space for their belongings.
"Schools are always struggling to meet the needs of the students because they go beyond what is provided by classroom funding," says Endres.
Many schools organize food and clothing drives to be able to help with their students' basic needs and normal school experiences "like prom and athletics, that are otherwise out of reach for students when they're homeless." When it comes to something that's a longer term investment in kids, "schools can always use mentors and tutors," Endres adds.
The importance of extracurricular activities can't be understated. Activities such as the school band, sports or drama are "the antidote" to many of the negative downsides of being homeless while studying, according to Barbara Duffield of SchoolHouse Connection.
These experiences offer normalcy and regularity to homeless students, along with a sense of belonging that keeps them engaged in school.
Santa Claus is coming to town
For the students of PS 76 and PS 188 in New York City, Christmas will be merrier this year.
The Sugarplum Sled was able to fulfill all the requests from the students, who listed several items for people to choose from.
Most people, says organizer Erica Hill, went above and beyond procuring all the items on the students' wish lists, and then some.
Up until last week, Hill and her team were able to fulfill about 50% of the gift requests just by reaching out to their network of family and friends, and were prepared to purchase the rest on their own dime.
A retweet from New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez changed things dramatically. "All of a sudden we had all these people coming to our site," Hill said. "Everything just filled up so quickly."
Encouraged by what they could accomplish in a little over four weeks, Hill and the others are looking ahead to next year, and hope to expand their reach.
"Imagine if we could grow this to include 1.5 million children," Hill says. Here's to hoping.
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