When my students chose homelessness as the focus of their service learning project, I admit that I was somewhat nonplussed. What impact, I wondered, could first graders hope to make on such a multi-faceted and far reaching issue? Homelessness is pervasive throughout society, both in the United States and abroad. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of which are children, will experience homelessness in a given year. The causes of homelessness are as wide and varied as the people impacted by it; job loss, foreclosure, cyclic poverty, lack of affordable housing, domestic violence and mental illness are but a few of the reasons people lose their homes. My students remained undaunted in face of this onslaught of information, they stood firm in their conviction that this was their issue, and that they could and would make an impact. My first graders rolled up their sleeves, brushed aside my skepticism, and got to work.
They began thinking about the basic issue, talking about the ways people became homeless, whether or not they themselves could become homeless, and how to combat the negative connotations associated with homelessness. They carried their conversation beyond social justice, making interdisciplinary connections during reading, math and writing. They planned a can drive, complete with incentives for those who donated at various levels. They created simple, inexpensive arts and crafts to sell during Valentine’s Day to raise money; they began to talk about planning an ad campaign encouraging those who have homes to show more compassion toward the homeless. Currently, my students are in the process of choosing a women and children’s shelter to support, visit, and volunteer their time. The dedication, drive and determination of my students continues to inspire me.
My students are not idle dreamers, they know that the actions they take to help eradicate homelessness this year and in the future will not constitute an immediate solution to the problem. They know that the road is long, and difficult. In spite of this, they did not hesitate to take on the journey. Never again will I ask, “What can first graders do?”