How We Engage With Big Questions: Homelessness
By Jill Ferraresso, Grade 2 Teacher
In November the 2nd graders read a book in class called "Fly Away Home" by Eve Bunting. In this story, a boy and his father are homeless and secretly living in an airport. This story launched our discussion about homelessness and allowed us to challenge common stereotypes about homeless people being lazy. We used our human being truths chart to talk about how in any group of people, there may be some lazy ones, some hard-working people, etc., and that in general, if a person does not have a home, they are missing something they really need. There are many different stories about why or how someone became homeless. Our main focus is on being compassionate and doing something to help.
We talked about how homelessness is a complex issue and not one to be solved easily. We can't all move people into our homes, or hand out all our money, but we can do a few things that can really help individual human beings.
I have talked to many different people who are homeless over the years, and over and over again I hear that the worst part of being homeless for so many people is feeling invisible. Most people walk by homeless people without even a glance, perhaps because they are uncomfortable or afraid of being asked for money, or maybe because they are so used to seeing homeless people that they no longer see them.
One thing that can help, and is free, is to offer a smile or a simple hello. This tiniest of gestures is so incredibly powerful. Mother Teresa once said, "A smile is the beginning of love." Smiles are free. I asked the children who knew how to smile and the whole class answered by beaming.
We talked about how children should not talk to any adult they don't know without their parents' permission, but if they are with their parents and have permission (and time), they can even ask the person who they are or wish them a good day.
I told the class about a backpack project that my son has been doing since the summer. My son, who is fourteen now, cares deeply about the issue of homelessness, and at his initiation, we looked up ideas for ways to help. We settled on the "Backpack Project."
The idea of the Backpack Project is to collect backpacks (they don't have to be new), fill them with essentials, and then give them out to people on the street who might need them. We found a list of essentials we found online that could be included in a backpack (all of which should be new):
protein bars (no nuts)
a water bottle
a warm hat
a warm scarf
sample size shampoo, conditioner, lotion, deodorant, soap
a pack of tissues
a comb or brush
Advil or other pain reliever
Being clean is part of our ability to feel human dignity.
We tweaked the original list to also include:
We handed out several backpacks this past summer. In one backpack our "something inspiring" was a book of Maya Angelou poetry, the "something comforting" was my son’s beloved sock monkey, the "something creative" was a spiral notebook and a package of colored pencils and the "something encouraging" was a card from my son created, very sparkly and happy looking on the outside, telling whoever received it that there are people who care, and adding quotes from people like Eleanor Roosevelt about strength and perseverance.
Our class decided they wanted to have their own Backpack Project. One student who was especially interested in this project took the lead in organizing and thinking about how we would navigate the particulars. She created a large copy of our backpack list so people could check things off as they donated them and keep track of what was still needed, and found and labeled boxes outside of our classroom to put donations into.
Over the weeks that followed, the class filled more than 20 backpacks and children took them home to deliver them to homeless people this winter. The students were so excited to know they are making a difference, and a few were moved to tears that they are helping people who are outside this winter.
We want to thank the whole community for their donations and support.