What began last year as an effort to say congratulations to homeless high graduates has grown into something more.

The Independence Ministerial Alliance has reached out those in the community – individuals, churches, businesses – for donations for gift cards for homeless graduates in the Independence School District.

This year 55 graduates were given $50 Visa cards. Those are unaccompanied minors in a variety of situations, perhaps living in a car, perhaps sleeping on a friend’s couch, perhaps even living in a tent.

The concern is that those are the graduates who lack a support system and who might not be getting much from family or friends at graduation time.

Donations have jumped sharply.

“We’ve tripled where we were last year,” said the Rev. Sarah Wimberley, the pastor at Northern Boulevard United Methodist Church and president of the Ministerial Alliance.

Wimberley stressed that these 55 are only the homeless students known to school officials and often students who have left home or been kicked out or are homeless for whatever reason and will make informal arrangements that schools won’t hear about. And, she pointed out, the 55 are only from one of the four school districts that cover Independence.

But the financial response from donors has brought in more than needed for gift cards, and Nicole Sequeira, the school district’s family services coordinator, said the community needs to be thanked for that.

Now the Independence School District Foundation has set up an ongoing fund to help those students with specific needs as they move on in their education.

A $100 deposit for a college dorm room, Wimberley said, can be a big summertime obstacle for a student waiting on a financial package to kick in when school starts. Or a student signing up for a certified nurse’s aide course might need to buy scrubs and other things for that training.

“I think it’s a really good example of not a handout but a hand up,” Sequeira said.