School gives sense of homeless life Youngsters tackle challenges of needy in hands-on approach

November 19, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

A buzz of activity is forming around hunks of cardboard on the Hammond Middle School lawn in North Laurel. About 20 seventh-graders armed with paper cutters and duct tape are gathered around boxes, charged with building a shelter big enough to hold two people.

"It's the experience of hands-on," said student service coordinator Michel Gledhill, watching the pupils build. "This is what homeless people have to do to survive."

Pupils in one of the region's most affluent suburbs got an intense lesson yesterday in the plight of people they don't often see. Hammond Middle dedicated the day to projects, films and speeches designed to make the children more aware of the problem and inspire them to help. The school plans to conclude the program today.

In technical education class, the pupils tried to build cardboard shelters that would withstand the elements. In home economics, they traced the outline of their hands on construction paper and painted them with inspirational sayings to make a paper quilt. In social studies, they pored over grocery store fliers and tried to plan a week of nutritious meals for a family of five -- with $50. A school volunteer wore a T-shirt with the sobering phrase:

"The average age of a homeless person in American today is NINE."

"We are literally shutting down the school for this," Gledhill said. "The activities are not just you're-sitting-there-in-your-seat. We're not doing the talking heads thing."

More than donations

Gledhill said the idea grew from a call the school received from a local soup kitchen needing food donations. Rather than solicit food -- the school has collected more than 2,100 items -- teachers and administrators at Hammond decided to try something far more ambitious.

Even for preteens, the lessons were, at times, surprising. When Mary Ann Laing, former executive director of the Catonsville Emergency Food Ministry, told an assembly of pupils that actor Jim Carrey once was homeless, a chorus of exclamations rang through the gymnasium.

"Jewel, she was homeless and living in a Volkswagen," Laing said, referring to the pop singer.

Laing, whose daughter attends Hammond Middle, discussed the ways that people become homeless, including by domestic violence, illness and job loss. She said that many people who are desperate for money are embarrassed to ask for help.

Giving with meaning

"My main point with them is that, right now, most of them are in the position of being able to give," Laing said of the pupils. "And it should really mean something when they give."

Though the homeless aren't so obvious in the suburbs as they are in the city, Howard County's shelters have taken in many needy people. According to statistics from Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center Inc., 555 homeless people were sheltered last year in Howard County, and more than 250 were younger than age 18.

Tearful lessons

Gledhill said some pupils were wiping away tears after watching "Shelter Boy," a short film about a homeless 12-year-old. After charting the state's homeless population, someone wrote, "This is depressing" on his paper.

Alisha Sanford and Jessica Ngo, both 12, haggled over food prices from a Giant grocery store flier in Kelly Adolphi's social studies class. With their limited classroom budget to feed a five-member family, the two girls learned how quickly $50 can disappear.

"For the whole week, we're gonna have the same thing," Jessica said, glancing at their breakfast menu of cereal, grapefruit and orange drink.

"You don't buy brand names because that costs a lot," Alisha said. "And you can't have snacks."

Earlier, Roy Rosnick's seventh-grade technology education pupils were trying to keep their cardboard house from collapsing while yelling for supplies and reinforcements. Though the eighth-graders' shelter was fancier and included a mock chimney, their younger counterparts had the foresight to put in a floor.

"We're learning about how they live and everything -- what they have to go through," said Teddy Pope, 12.

'Such an eye-opener'

Cathy Henry, a pupil personnel worker and tutorial coordinator for the homeless for the Howard County school system, said programs such as Hammond's help to give homelessness a face. Henry, who worked with 130 homeless children last year, spent the morning at the school helping make the paper quilt.

"I think the main problem that they have is being able to focus on school activities when there are so many other dire needs that need to be met," Henry said of homeless youngsters. "Getting an education is too long-range of a goal when you need to eat."

Henry noted that many of the parents of homeless children are employed but don't have enough money to pay the security deposit or the first month's rent or both to get an apartment for their families.

"This has just been such an eye-opener for them," Gledhill said. "When in middle school, that's the time kids are taught values. This has been a real important program for us."

Pub Date: 11/19/98

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