Serving at Sumner

Our partnership with Sumner High School is a prime example of our Whole Child Model at work!


Celeste Grayer’s day seemingly never ends, and she wouldn’t change a thing. “It’s been nothing but a pleasure to serve children, families, and the community of St. Louis,” she says. Grayer wears many hats in the community – event organizer, board member, multidisciplinary artist, entrepreneur, mentor – but her day job for the past 20 years has been as social worker, the first 10 with the Children’s Division of Missouri and the past decade with Saint Louis Public Schools. She currently serves as School Social Worker for the historic and recently revitalized Sumner High School in the Ville neighborhood.


Since joining Sumner in 2020, Grayer has worked to create an environment that addresses students’ basic needs – because “when you feel better, you do better,” she says – and one in which they feel empowered, not embarrassed, to advocate for their needs. Part of this has involved Grayer advocating for more community connections, including bringing Little Bit to Sumner. She had experience working with Little Bit to provide student essentials and host book fairs while at Peabody Elementary a few years back. “I remember what it did for students’ confidence, but mostly what stood out was how much the volunteers and staff genuinely cared about them as individuals,” says Grayer. “I’d been asking Pam (Braasch, Little Bit Senior Program Manager) for about two years, ‘are we going to be able to bring Little Bit to Sumner?’, and thankfully in 2022, the stars aligned!”


With partial funding by the NISA Charitable Fund, Little Bit officially “adopted” Sumner at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year and celebrated with a ribbon cutting in the spring. Students at Sumner can access essential items – clothing, toiletries, period supplies, etc. – in a classroom turned into Little Bit boutique, practice the principles of coding through the STEM Lingo program Little Bit brings to middle and high schools, and participate in its college and career readiness programming. During the first year at Sumner, students accessed virtual transferable skills seminars, met with potential employers during Little Bit’s Application/Hiring Day, explored the art-focused organizations and businesses in the Grand Center arts district (an Arts Pathway was infused into the school’s curriculum in 2021), and got an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of Little Bit partner, Andy’s Seasoning. “This was the first time the company had allowed students to tour their operations,” says Grayer. “They also were able to hear from employees about how they had moved up through the ranks, which was really inspiring.”


Grayer says William Hardrick, Little Bit Senior Program Manager of College and Career Readiness, has become part of the family. “The kids and staff all know and love him and the programming he’s brought into and outside of the classroom has given kids options they didn’t know they had.” In the spring, Hardrick and Jonnetta Alexander, Little Bit Student Advocate and Family Engagement (SAFE) Manager, led a SOAR Beyond program at Sumner, a condensed version of Little Bit’s SOAR Mentoring program. In the six sessions of SOAR Beyond, students completed personality and career assessments, developed vision board and SMART goals, and practiced mental health exercises.


While Grayer says Hardrick is part of the Sumner family, she describes Alexander as an extension of herself. “Jonnie and I work really well together and she has been so valuable to me,” she says. As SAFE Manager, Alexander has helped implement Little Bit’s new Wellness and Family Support program in six Saint Louis Public Schools in the 2022-23 school year. During registration for the school year, Grayer says she does a preliminary evaluation of family needs and then refers several to Alexander for follow-up. “I also try to be really intentional in listening to students about what may be going on at home.”


After referral, Alexander meets with families to identify priority areas of concern and barriers preventing their success, and then connects them with available community resources if not provided by Little Bit. This includes Little Bit’s longtime community partner, St. Vincent de Paul. “Jonnie is so good at relating to families, she’s able to remove the stigma around receiving assistance,” says Grayer. “Families know that it’s all about helping them move past the circumstance holding them back.”


Grayer concludes, “When I watch how the Sumner community, including Little Bit, engages with students, it’s like that extended family – the aunts and uncles – many of them may not have to help nourish their development into adults. It’s a beautiful thing.”