By Michael Thompson, Contributing Writer
The school year is beginning after a long and too-hot summer, and many teachers and students will consider community service projects, including outreach to the homeless.
Intentions may be honorable but care and advance planning are crucial. For example, I once encountered a high school class that volunteered to serve a Christmas lunch at a shelter. Two key mistakes occurred.
First, the kids simmered the chicken soup noodles for two hours. Normally that might be okay, but these were ramen noodles. Yuck! One may be homeless and hungry, but even then, the appetite has limits.
Second, the students (or their parents) made some high-quality afghans as gifts. This was a wonderful and thoughtful idea, but alas, there weren't enough afghans to go around. Not wanting to exclude anyone, the kids wrapped some alternative gifts. Unfortunately, these were mere canned food items. One shaggy fellow opened his can of beans, somewhat understandably took offense, and started cussing.
The whole deal was a disaster. The class adviser should have known better, and the high schoolers were old enough to know better, too.
Therefore my first tip for school projects to support the homeless is to always put oneself in the other's shoes, making sure dignity and personal respect are the top priority. Don't look down on homeless people, either intentionally or unconsciously.
Consider projects other than feeding. Homeless shelters and rescue missions by and large have that covered. A class might consider providing entertainment at the shelter, bringing along school musicians or performing a skit. Caroling works good during the holiday season.
Think of interactive things to do, as simple as breaking into groups for card games or board games. (A lot of older guys, homeless included, know dominoes. They might get a charge -- and some self-worth -- from teaching the kids to play.) Story telling is another idea; a student tells a story, then a resident, taking turns.
Above all, aim to schedule several visits rather than just one, which can seem sort of like a hit-and-run. Establish a relationship. What the heck, maybe the school system could bus the shelter residents out to the school for a visit.
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