Riverview students get taste of hard life on the street
by Jamie Piontkowski Special to The Review

Riverview Middle School eighth-graders prepare cardboard shelters, which they then spent much of the night in to experience some of the issues related to homelessness. — Submitted photo Riverview Middle School eighth-graders prepare cardboard shelters, which they then spent much of the night in to experience some of the issues related to homelessness. — Submitted photo Eighth-graders at Riverview Middle School in Plymouth recently spent a cold night outside to get a better sense of the issues faced by the homeless.

“I could imagine that being homeless would be very stressful and a challenge, especially if you have a family that needs to be cared for,” student Katie Sember wrote afterward. “I hope that the amount of homelessness decreases throughout the years to come.”

This was the first time Riverview undertook such an event. “We are always looking for new units that are meaningful and motivating for our language arts students,” said teacher Sara Schubert.

About 125 of the 150 eighthgraders participated in the event Oct. 23, most of them staying until their parents picked them up at 6 a.m.

Getting ready for the big night

To prepare for their night outside, eighth-graders met with school counselor Therese Unger to talk about the seriousness of homelessness, including facts and statistics and clips from a “60 Minutes” show featuring homeless kids.

Students also created budgets based on a entrylevel job. “Most of them were shocked to find out that they wouldn’t be able to afford the things they want by only working at a minimum wage job,” Schubert said.

Students read books on homelessness in their book clubs, and completed brief assignments to help guide their thoughts. They also created video trailers to showcase the books to classmates.

A guest speaker from Redeemer Church spoke to students about his experiences while choosing to be homeless for a week. In addition, students created “bundles of belongings” filled with personal care items and words of encouragement that were donated to area homeless shelters.

“Our hope is that this unit will develop community within our students and make them more compassionate about those less fortunate and to encourage them to do well in school and make good choices,” Schubert said.

Cardboard boxes, soup kitchen, garbage snacks

For the culminating activity – experiencing a cold October night spent mostly outside – students began building cardboard shelters around 3 p.m. They were served a basic soup kitchen meal inside the school.

The meal made an impression on student Adam Smith. “I don’t usually complain about food, because I like most foods, but I was so hungry that I ate everything I got, even if it wasn’t very good,” he said. “I felt like I was actually homeless, because I was extremely hungry and trying to eat everything that I could from each grain of rice to the core of the apple.”

Some students were randomly selected to be labeled “felons,” given a bag of cold rice and a piece of bread and asked to leave the soup kitchen. “Students were floored that this actually happens and that shelters can turn people away,” Schubert said.

Derek Novotny was one of the “felons.” “I was so excited to eat, and then I was chosen to be a felon, so for supper I got a bag of rice and a piece of bread,” he said. “When I got outside in the cold and started eating the rice it tasted very plain, but the bread was delicious.”

Josh Klister also was selected as a “felon.” “I was fine with it because I knew that I would be able to have food when I got home,” he said, “but I was still pretty angry because they weren’t treating me fairly.”

Schubert noticed that some kind-hearted students smuggled food out of the soup kitchen to share with their “felon” friends. “They were truly worried they would starve and wanted to help out,” she said. “We have compassionate students and they learned to be even more compassionate and caring through this experience.”

After dinner, students went back outside to their shelters. Fires were started and students dug through garbage cans to find food such as granola bars and grapes hidden in plastic bags.

Logan Kulow was glad for the “garbage” snacks. “Usually I would be polite and wait my turn, but when you only get a bowl of rice for dinner you do what it takes to get food,” he said. “So I pushed through everyone and dug my hands into the ‘garbage.’”

Where the fun ended

The experience really opened eyes when, around 8 p.m., Plymouth Police officers visited and told students they had to move their shelters.

“Prior to the visit from officers, students were thinking this was fun and wanted to do it again,” special education teacher Diane Rosenbeck said. “They were comfortable with their shelters spaced out among the soccer field; some were large enough to fit 10 students.”

But the order to move brought emotional upheaval, Rosenbeck said. “Students were angry that their homes were wrecked, and they didn’t know where they were going to be sleeping,” she said. “Some were crying; a lot of students wanted to go home. All of a sudden the ‘all-about-me’ attitude changed to more of a close knit environment.”

Student Hannah Stucke said having to move the boxes was harsh. “But in reality, that’s how real homeless people are treated,” she said.

Connor Joseph said his reaction was pretty typical of those around him: “I was curious, intolerant and angry because of the fact that we had to move our house that could not be moved,” he said. “I now feel sympathy because of the fact that most homeless people don’t spend two hours building a cardboard house with unlimited resources.”

Police liason officer Todd Krohnberg then facilitated a long discussion with students about the realities faced by many homeless people. “Students were more humble the rest of the evening,” Rosenbeck said. “It was great to see that all of our hard work paid off as the students now ‘got it’.”

“It seemed like it was more of a way to torture us than teach us anything, but now I realize I did learn from it,” student Emma Hellmer wrote afterward. “I learned that I have way more than I need. To me it may not seem this way sometimes, but I am spoiled. After having this experience, where a warm place to sleep was all it took for me to be saved, I know that I have to do something. I need to make a difference.”

Organizers did open the school’s gym as a makeshift shelter once the temperature fell to 30 degrees, though some students chose to remain outside the entire night.

Mason Guell was one of those who chose to stay outside. “I felt I made a good decision because some homeless people actually sleep outside and I got to know what it’s like,” he said. “I only woke up a couple of times during the night. I learned that I live in luxury compared to some people and I should be happy I have a warm house to sleep and live in.”

Catherine Williamson eventually went inside with her friends. “As the night was winding to an end, people started getting anxious to go in to the building,” she said. “I was a bit disappointed that all my friends were going inside, but I was glad we’d get to go inside after being so cold, for so long.”

Reflecting on the experience

After the night outside, students composed a written reflection based on their experiences. “They are interesting to read and show how much they’ve grown over the past few weeks of school,” Schubert said.

Student Klairice Schwartz said the experience changed her belief in the stereotype that homeless people are lazy, mean and uneducated. “I never ever want to have to go through that for real,” she said. “I am very thankful for what I have, and I took everything for granted until this experience. Food, heating, warm clothing, and a home are things I took for granted, but in reality, I am very fortunate and lucky.”

Brandon Keller has a new appreciation for the resilience of the homeless. “I now realize how much teamwork, loyalty, and dedication it takes to be homeless,” he said. “It is not easy being homeless, and without some of those traits, I’m not sure you’d be able to survive. I also now realize I can donate food, clothes, money, and almost anything to help other people out. ”

When Katie Pocian first heard about the night outside, she thought it would be a fun experience. “I expected it to be laid back, that I’d be plenty warm with the materials I had brought, and that the hours were just going to fly by,” she said. “This is where I was wrong. It really was an eye-opening experience for me. I found out first-hand that homelessness is not fun at all! It actually is quite boring, tiring, and very unpredictable.”

Morgan Walcott also thought the night would be mostly fun. “We all thought this night would just be a night to sleep in boxes at school. Unfortunately, we would soon realize that the night would take a turn for the worst. In the end, this experience made me more aware of how homeless people live and what happens to them every day and night. Homelessness isn’t something to make fun of.”

Asher Marcom wrote that he initially didn’t think he could learn much about being homeless by spending one night outside. “I was very wrong,” he wrote. “I took a lot away from that day and primarily I learned to have more respect for the homeless and I think that schools all over the nation should have this experience because it changed my view on life. I thank Ms. Hartman and Mrs. Schubert, and all the other staff for letting us have this experience.”

Schubert and Bri Hartman in turn thanked the teachers and staff – many of whom volunteered to chaperone the chilly event – as well as the families and businesses who donated supplies and helped with the event.

“The students got a true experience of how they might be hungry, cold, bored, asked to move and harassed,” Schubert said.

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