By Cynthia A. Núñez MSW, McKinney-Vento Liaison, Lewiston Independent School District, Lewiston, ID
One night last fall, I lay awake, replaying a conversation I had had with a fellow social worker regarding homelessness in our community. I recalled his words about “the overall lack of concern for a population that many choose to ignore” and I contemplated what could I do to make a difference. I took the opportunity of Homeless Awareness Month in November to send out a challenge to every employee in our school district. This was my challenge: Do something this month that makes a difference to someone experiencing homelessness. I also added that if they needed ideas, they should contact their building’s McKinney-Vento liaison.
I didn’t know if I would get any responses to my email, but that didn’t matter. My goal was to increase awareness of homeless individuals, families, and children in our community. In addition to my challenge, I sent out “Homeless Awareness PSAs” throughout the month. The “PSAs” included the most current statistics for our state and school district; a brief history of the McKinney-Vento Act; the importance of identifying homeless students, and that identification takes all of us; a list of building liaisons in our district; and a list of opportunities to render service to local groups and programs that serve those experiencing homelessness in our community. I concluded that the list is endless, and there is something that everyone at every age can do.
The response to the challenge warmed my heart. Below are a few of the highlights from November’s Homeless Awareness Month:
One school’s kindergarten classes made adorable turkey treat bags and colorful fall placemats which were donated to the only day shelter in Lewiston, known as The ROC (Reach Out Center). The adorable turkey treat bags were filled with treats before being delivered to the day shelter.
At another school, the 3rd grade classes gathered items and made “We Care” packages to donate to the day shelter. Examples of items they gathered and put in each care package were lip balm, socks, snacks, hand and feet warmers, gloves, rain coats, personal hygiene products, and packets of instant coffee, tea, and hot cocoa. Amazing what these 3rd graders accomplished!
Another school did a month-long “Share the Warmth” blanket drive and collected over 100 blankets which were distributed to the warming shelter, the domestic violence shelter, and Family Promise. School liaisons also received blankets to give to McKinney-Vento students.
I wanted to make the acts of kindness relevant to the children. I visited the kindergarten classes and read them “Mango’s Quest,” the story of a hamster who lost his home and then found another one. I also contacted The ROC’s director of social services, who visited all the classes and shared with the children what it means to be without a home.
In a follow-up conversation with The ROC, they shared how powerful this was for them and for the people that use their services. When patrons learned that children made the treat bags and the care packages just for them, tears filled their eyes. One individual said through his tears, “I didn’t think anybody cared.”
I also took the opportunity of Homeless Awareness Month to do district-wide trainings with district administrators, the transportation department, school secretaries, and I even managed to get on the school board agenda, where I shared the month’s activities.
I utilized every form of media to spread the word about what was being done in my school district. I posted on Facebook and Twitter, and contacted our local newspaper. On the last day of November, the newspaper contacted me and we arranged for them to take pictures and interview students helping with the month-long blanket drive.
It appeared on the front page of the paper.
I still see the article posting on bulletin boards as I go around to the shelters and different agencies.
My district administrator received an email from one of the members of the school board expressing his gratitude for a district that reaches out to the community.
The end of Homeless Awareness Month did not end the challenge. Acts of kindness continue into the New Year. The kindergarten classes made snowman treat bags for the day shelter. Another class is making scarves for the chilly winter months and will distribute them throughout our town. Community members are calling the schools wanting to know if they can donate blankets. Another school group has selected homelessness as their topic for the upcoming year. Local businesses are sending donations to schools for school supplies and clothing needs of students.
Some readers may question whether charitable acts by elementary school students can make a significant difference in the struggle against homelessness. It is important to understand that these acts took place in a community where there has been a great amount of negativity towards homeless individuals and families – even to a point that our city government passed zoning laws prohibiting the building of any future homeless shelters. The small impact the challenge had on the community is a move in the right direction.
I am reminded that no act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.