By Alexandra (Alex) Zinnes, MS, RYT, TEFL, Nobis Project Facilitator –
Less than a tenth of a miles from our school is Our House
http://www.ourhousega.org/, a childcare and support center serving
families who experience homelessness. Everyday, over 80 kids ages 6
weeks–5 years receive daycare from 7am–6pm while their caregivers seek
assistance or participate in job training programs.
I teach 7th and 8th grade World Studies at the Friends School of
Atlanta. For the past two summers, I co-facilitated Nobis World’s
trip to the Dominican Republic. I love enabling my students to make
better sense of the world they are living in, and to question how we
got where we are. I want them to make connections between their lives
and the events that unfold around them.
Global issues become lived realities at the local level. The Nobis Big
Idea of Global Citizenship drives home this point: everything and
everyone is interconnected. I can present my students with lessons
about the transnational t-shirt trade and show them the faces of the
people in Bangladesh and Colombia who make our cheap garments. We
wear the world and the geo-consequences of our economic decisions on
our very backs.
It turns out that the tools for examining power, privilege, poverty,
and systems of oppression far away are the very same for examining
them closer to home. All that’s needed is to direct your focus to the
thing right before your eyes, or in this case, kitty-corner from our
school. I have long-wanted to develop a relationship with Our House
for this very reason.
So, my homeroom, the All-Stars, decided that for our culminating
experience for our work on examining issues of child poverty and
family homelessness would be to take a short walk up the road, and
spend a morning making homemade play-dough with the little kids (so
fun – recipe here
reading in pairs and playing outdoors.
How do you take a half-day field trip and make it into a more robust
service learning experience? Often, the inclination is tack on a
clothing or supplies drive. Or the ubiquitous bake sale. Certainly,
money is always appreciated. And, true, Our House, does have a supply
wish list. That said, I wanted my students to go beyond this model of
community service to something deeper, something that would open their
eyes to the issues of child poverty and homelessness. I wanted it to
be a simple and creative project that would be helpful to Our House,
and help us and our school community learn.
So, it began with a few conversations between the All-Stars and
members of our own community (a teacher and a parent) who had
themselves experienced homelessness. Students already had meaningful
relationships with these individuals who shared their personal
struggles and so I could see my students listening in a different way.
I could see them connecting to their vulnerability as the quality of
their questions deepened, the answers ever-more meaningful to them.
During one of the conversations,the parent mentioned that in
particular, having a child in diapers while being homeless was
extremely challenging. Now, what could be more concrete than that
image of not having a reliable, safe, and clean place to change a
diaper for one or multiple kids the upteen times one needs to
throughout the day? My kids got it. I also recalled that one of the
items on Our House’s wish list was for diapers. Thus, the idea for
Diaper Mountain was born.
The next thing we did was to begin examining the treasure trove of
data on the National Center for Children in Poverty website
(http://www.nccp.org/?src=logo) a research-based organization that
generates a ton of data, reports, and statistics about children living
in poverty in the United States. We delved into the site’s exhaustive
look at the subject especially around the issues of minimum wage and
the poverty line.
As you can imagine, there were loads of opportunities to use social
science math, budget building skills, as well as delve into the social
justice questions the notion of the poverty line raises for kids.
Currently set at $24,250 for a family of four, the poverty line
illuminates for students the challenge of making ends meet and the
vulnerability of so many more families living above it. I had
students pick out the most eye-opening statistics and make posters to
go all around the school thus extending the learning and Our House and
children living in poverty beyond our room.
But what about the diapers? We couldn’t shake this idea of how hard
it must be to diaper kids when experiencing homelessness. But what
about the cost?
We did some research and learned that a child changed 8 times a day
for 3 years uses 8,760 diapers (obviously the actual number would
vary). We did some market research and determined that it costs about
$100/month to diaper one child which is roughly 8% of a full time
minimum wage salary of $14,500.
The All-Stars decided to conduct school wide diaper drive in order to
donate the diapers to Our House. But more than this, we wanted to our
school community to learn more about the financial realities of
diapers. (We could also talk about the environmental impact, but for
the purpose of this effort, we just focused on the financial costs).
And so, Diaper Mountain. The All-Stars created a mountain of diapers
as an art installation in the lunchroom (actually, not as mountainous
as I thought a half a year of diapers might be) along with our
research about the cost of diapers for families living at or near the
poverty line. In the end, we received donations for about 6 months of
diaper usage or 1,500 diapers.
The day at Our House was wonderful, and I’m so glad we went. My
students loved interacting with the little kids, showing off their
reading skills, and making wonderful messes with the playdough. I
loaded the diapers in my car and they were well-received by Our House.
And, I’m also pleased because as an outgrowth of the experience, we
saw an opportunity to deepen our relationship: Our House could use
some daily support from our students in the classroom. Conversations
to sort out the details of having Friends School kids support Our
House in this way are in progress for the 2015-2016 school year.
Where the relationship takes us and what future projects might look
like is unclear. But using Diaper Mountain as a model points a way
forward to creating projects in a way that builds reciprocity between
my students and Our House. It’s a way that engages my students’
intellect as well as their hearts, developing their skills, informing
their community, and helping them understand the connections in the
ways of the world whether up the street or on the other side of the