About four years ago, West Chester University football coach Bill Zwaan learned about the university’s efforts to help students who were homeless, especially those with nowhere to go over Christmas and summer breaks.

About the same time, Zwaan, and his 10 siblings were running out of ideas on what to get each other for a Pollyanna Christmas gift exchange.

That’s when the idea hit: Instead of exchanging presents, they would spend the same amount on gifts for the university’s homeless students. Since then, nieces and nephews have joined the giving. So have West Chester staff members, students, the football players, and their families — even a nearby restaurant.

“It just spread like wildfire,” said Zwaan, 64, of Malvern, who has coached at the school since 2002. “Last year was a huge success and this year is even bigger.”

Catia Rembert, a graduate intern at West Chester University and the single point of contact for the Promise Program, sorts gifts that will be given to students who are staying on campus over winter break.
Catia Rembert, a graduate intern at West Chester University and the single point of contact for the Promise Program, sorts gifts that will be given to students who are staying on campus over winter break.

This year, the 28 students who will remain on campus for the five-week break were each treated to nearly $300 in gift cards, a cookie, and sweet treat bag, plus a mix of gifts including blankets, towels, sweaters, West Chester T-shirts and pajamas, and a holiday dinner courtesy of Barnaby’s in downtown West Chester.

“It solidifies the fact that they’re my family here,” said Princess Hill, 23, a university sophomore who will be staying over break.

What’s happening at West Chester isn’t unique, nor is the need. Nationally, about 58,000 students report on federal financial aid forms that they are homeless, but experts say that’s not a true number, because other students don’t reveal it.

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Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, an expert on the topic, estimates about 10 percent of the nation’s college students are homeless. More colleges, locally and nationally, have begun to track and offer more help to students who are hungry and homeless; providing support over breaks is part of their effort.

The University of Pennsylvania will have about 100 students, including some international students, remaining on campus this holiday season. They move to a dorm that is kept open, and students with high need are given reloadable debit cards for meals and groceries, said spokeswoman Amanda Mott.

Bryn Mawr College also provides housing and meals at no charge for some students.

Princess Hill, 23, is one of 28 West Chester University students who will spend the five-week break on campus.
Princess Hill, 23, is one of 28 West Chester University students who will spend the five-week break on campus.

At West Chester, more than 50 students are in the university’s Promise Program, which assists homeless students and those who came up through the foster system. Monthly dinners, programs, and a resource pantry are among the services offered.

The help provided over extended breaks has become crucial. About half of the students opted to take the school up on its offer to stay on campus this winter break. West Chester provides housing and some meals free of charge. The university also provides a free shuttle service.

Most of the students are concentrated in one dorm; several, including Hill, stay in the university apartments.

Mary Lou Zwaan and her nephew Bill Zwaan Jr., vital cogs in the Zwaan gift team, preparing gift bags last week for the West Chester students.
Mary Lou Zwaan and her nephew Bill Zwaan Jr., vital cogs in the Zwaan gift team, preparing gift bags last week for the West Chester students.

Hill said she moved around a lot as a child and coped with an unstable family situation. On more than one occasion, including once when she was 9, she had to call around to find a place to stay, she said. It was traumatizing.

“It’s just not a good feeling to constantly have to worry about where you’re going to go,” Hill said.

She didn’t like high school, and had to endure bullying. Ultimately, she graduated and got her own apartment. She worked at McDonald’s and held temp-agency jobs, but struggled to make ends meet and was in danger of losing her residence when her cousin, a West Chester student, helped her apply.

Hill’s life changed. For the first time, the psychology and social work major said she began to enjoy school; she has a 3.6 GPA. She uses a mix of grants and loans to pay for her education and room and board; the university lets her remain on campus, free of charge, over winter and summer breaks.

At West Chester, the numbers of students needing assistance has grown, both because the university has become more aware of the issue and because more students are coming to college without stable family backgrounds, said Susan Visoskas, the school’s associate director of housing for more than 12 years.

The upside is that students who choose to stay during breaks now have more company. “Now that our numbers have grown, there is that sense of community,” she said.

And the Zwaan siblings contribute to that family feel.

The five Zwaan boys and six girls grew up in a close-knit Catholic family in Havertown. Their father, who had been a teacher and accountant, died of a heart attack when most of the kids were still in school. Their mother got an administrative job in the X-ray department of a local hospital; she worked hard to support the family.

Members of the Zwaan family at a Christmas gathering a few years ago: Front row, from left: Janet Zwaan, Reenie Zwaan Stirling, Reen Wilk Zwaan (Dennis’ wife), Mary Lou Zwaan, Trish Zwaan, Diane Logue Zwaan (Brian’s wife), Cathy Christman Zwaan (Joe’s wife), Roe Coleman Zwaan (Bill’s wife), Regina Zwaan Campo. Back row, from left: Bob Stirling (Reenie’s husband), Dennis Zwaan, Kitty Zwaan, Brian Zwaan, Tom Zwaan, Joe Zwaan, Bill Zwaan, John Campo (Regina’s husband)
Members of the Zwaan family at a Christmas gathering a few years ago: Front row, from left: Janet Zwaan, Reenie Zwaan Stirling, Reen Wilk Zwaan (Dennis’ wife), Mary Lou Zwaan, Trish Zwaan, Diane Logue Zwaan (Brian’s wife), Cathy Christman Zwaan (Joe’s wife), Roe Coleman Zwaan (Bill’s wife), Regina Zwaan Campo. Back row, from left: Bob Stirling (Reenie’s husband), Dennis Zwaan, Kitty Zwaan, Brian Zwaan, Tom Zwaan, Joe Zwaan, Bill Zwaan, John Campo (Regina’s husband)

“She was a single mother for a good part of her life, but she always had people who helped her and we saw that growing up," said Mary Lou Zwaan, 57, who was 12 when her father died. “That’s what always motivated us to want to give back.”

All but two of the siblings, now ranging in age from 52 to 65, live in Delaware and Chester Counties. The oldest sister is in the Gettysburg area and works at the college there. One sibling, Brian, a banking executive who helped keep Archbishop John Carroll High School in Radnor open during a period of financial problems, died last year in a swimming accident. The siblings attended Carroll.

Mary Lou Zwaan, a manager in human resources at Wells Fargo, still lives in the Havertown home where she and her siblings grew up.

She, along with nieces and nephews, bake the cookies and brownies for the West Chester student gift bags. Last week, she dropped the brightly colored gift bags off at the school with nephew Bill Zwann Jr., who also is a football coach there. The tradition the siblings learned as kids — to give back — has continued in the next generation.

Coach Zwaan (the head coach) got the ball rolling this time.

“Honestly, it’s just nice to see the smiles on their faces,” he said.

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.