By Guest Columnist JACK HARDIN, co-chair of the Regional Commission on Homelessness and co-founder of the Atlanta-based Rogers & Hardin law firm
As the co-chair of the Regional Commission on Homelessness, I heartily approve of teaching our young people to look beyond stereotypes and to get involved in making our community stronger.
The week of May 23, with only the clothes on their backs, $4 and discarded shoes, middle school students at Paideia School spent one week as homelessness individuals. They actually lived on the streets for one week and tried to survive without shelter, money or any basic necessities.
In an innovative program created and led by Elizabeth Hearn these students meet, serve and get to know homeless individuals. They learn that while much homelessness is caused or exacerbated by poor decisions, the realities of homelessness are compelling human conditions.
Participants in past immersion weeks say that the experience changed their outlooks on homelessness and helped them to see the real challenges people on the streets face. They said, “They are people too, just like us.”
This kind of issue-teaching is happening in other ways, too. Another Paideia teacher, Brett Hardin, has created an Urban Institute for high school students from a number of public and private schools that runs for three weeks in the summer.
Students visit homeless facilities like the Gateway Homeless Services Center, meet public officials such as the Mayor, city Council members and others struggling with the problems of an urban community to learn first hand the problems and the solutions being worked.
Working through the United Way Regional Commission on Homelessness, several faculty members of Lovett School including the principal, Billy Peebles, and students participated in commission’s Street to Home outreaches.
The school also hosted a commission’s Celebrate Success event. After Liza McClain, president of the school’s Service Board, participated in an outreach, she selected the commission and Trinity Community Ministries to receive a generous donation from the Student Services Board.
Elementary school children are also engaged on the issue of homelessness in Atlanta. Third graders from The Children’s School, led by Tamara Weinstein, spent one week learning about homelessness and the ways they could help.
To enhance the experience of learning, Tamara Weinstein asked the middle school students from Elizabeth Hearn’s Paideia class to present. Afterward, the elementary school children wrote letters to some community leaders to express their feelings.
Some said they wanted to help anyone facing homelessness by giving them food and water while others said they wanted to help them find shelter and safety. At such an early age, it is quite extraordinary that these children grasp the harsh concepts of homelessness and genuinely want to help.
Individual students can also make difference in this issue.
Another student from the Lovett School, Kaki Pope, chose to use commission’s work on homelessness for her senior project. She visited several housing agencies and shelters, including the Gateway Center. At the Gateway Center, Kaki captured several people’s stories and pictures and says she was excited to have a picture with a story attached to it.
After she went on an outreach, she said in her blog, “Being a part of the outreach was enlightening and inspiring. I highly recommend going, and I hope I am able to again very soon.”
Last year, during United Way’s Shoebox Project, a DeKalb County student and Girl Scot set the bar extraordinarily high. Michelle Gillig collected enough toiletries to fill 150 shoeboxes. Her donation was the largest Atlanta’s United Way had ever received. The shoeboxes go to homelss women and children in need of basic necessitites — toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc.
The commission applauds these innovative programs and these creative educators.
Any experience that pushes beyond stereotypes allows students to see the humanity in homeless people is education in the finest sense of the word. We are grateful that our community’s future leaders are learning more about the needs of the community in these well thought out and compassionate programs.