October 17, 2011 12:00 PM

Kids are bustling through the halls of Whitney Elementary School in Las Vegas on a recent Tuesday morning as principal Sherrie Gahn greets them with a singsong, “Good moooorning!” Fifth grader Charlee Morrow passes by and Gahn stops her, asking in a low voice, “Did you get the bed? Did you sleep on it? Was it nice?” Charlee beams and claps. “It was great,” she laughs. “I didn’t want to get up.” As the student disappears into her classroom, Gahn can’t hide her emotion. “I’m so glad,” she says, her voice wavering, “my kids are geting the things they need.”

Buying a kid a bed might seem out of the realm of a principal’s responsibility, but for Sherrie Gahn, 51, it’s all part of the job. At Whitney-where 85 percent of the 618 students live below the poverty line, and many are homeless-giving kids a chance to learn also means giving them free food, clothing, dental care and eyeglasses. “Sherrie doesn’t just talk about these kids’ needs,” says Pat Skorkowsky, an associate superintendant of Clark County School District. “She meets them, no matter what. Otherwise she feels she’s failing.”

It’s a struggle close to Gahn’s own heart. Growing up without a father in the projects of Buffalo, Gahn watched as her mother tried to support her and her sister working as a receptionist at a Buick car dealership. “I know what it’s like to worry about food and money,” says Gahn, now a married mother of two college students. “My family was often in crisis.” As she listens to students pour out their worries to her, her own memories often hit her with cataclysmic force. She recalls sitting in the backyard, around age 6, watching fire ants scrambling over one another. “Those ants are my friends, because they know how I feel,” she would think to herself. “They have no control, just like me.”

So when she hears that one of her students, like 10-year-old Charlee, is sleeping on the floor every night, she has to help. Using donations, she bought Charlee and her brother Camryn, 8, brand-new beds and also assisted their father, Chad, a struggling construction worker, in finding work and an apartment. And when she learned that Jared O’Neil lost his job as a painter and had to travel out of state for work, she paid for the family to move into a motel across the street from school and got clothes, backpacks, school supplies and food for their three kids-twins Jacob and Jordan, 7, and daughter Dylan, 8. Says mom Michelle Keener: “It touches my heart so much. My kids can concentrate on their studies when they have these things they need.” Coordinating with 400 local individuals and businesses, Gahn often arrives at school at 6 a.m. to sort through donations and work with school counselor Vicki Bustos to identify families needing help. Weekends are often spent searching for potential donors. “Sherrie is in tears if she feels like there’s someone she can’t help,” says Skorkowsky. Agrees Gahn: “Here is where I’m needed. It’s my passion.”

Every month, students celebrate their birthdays with new toys, pizza and gift bags; each Christmas kids go home with presents, blankets, clothes and food. “She’s saved us and gives us everything we need,” says Shirley Hernandez, grandmother to student Mia Godinez, 8. In exchange, families agree to “pay it forward” by volunteering and attending classes offered at the school-such as GED classes, citizenship classes or parenting classes all led by school homeless advocate Kim Butterfield. “Things are getting worse for families here,” says Butterfield of Las Vegas, where the unemployment rate is 14 percent and the foreclosure rate is five times higher than the national average. “Our goal is to give them a plan.”

So far, Gahn’s commitment seems to be paying off. The number of transient families has dropped 20 percent since she started seven years ago, and proficiency rates in reading and math have more than doubled. And what happens when her students eventually leave Whitney Elementary School? Gahn pledges to maintain her support through middle and high school and use donations to offset college tuition. “The kids tell me they dream for a house, they dream to be safe, they dream for a place to sleep,” says an emotional Gahn, as tears slide down her face. “And this is what I do. I will keep doing it until they have those dreams and can have new and bigger ones too.”

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