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Starring:
Kerrie Dallman


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"The hardest part was not being able to shower and get ready in the morning; it really knocks your confidence," says Stephanie Q. "I hated it because it made me anti-social. I felt so ugly and grumpy. I didn't even want my friends around me."

Stephanie describes Project Safety Net, an activity organized by her social studies teacher, Kerrie Dallman, at Pomona High School. In this project, the Arvada (Colorado) high school students learn about issues facing the homeless by "walking in their shoes" for one week. There are no showers, no cars, and no clean clothes for the participants. Despite the challenges it presented, Stephanie says, "I wouldn't take it back, and I will never forget it."

Project Safety Net, designed to help students become more aware of the needs and services in their community, is held during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week in November. Dallman began working with the program when she was contacted by Laura Brayman, executive director of HomeAid Colorado, who was looking for a teacher to participate in an experiential learning program focused on homelessness, in particular, what it's like to be homeless.

"The program runs Monday through Friday and is preceded by a parent meeting so parents can sign release forms and hear firsthand what their children will be expected to do if they participate in the program," Dallman told Education World. "To date, parents have been very supportive. In fact, some parents have convinced their children to participate in such a project."

HomeAid makes arrangements for classroom speakers and orchestrates a visit to a homeless shelter for the students. The week-long activity follows the format below:

Spending a night inside a cold car in the school parking lot is one way students discover what homelessness is really like.

Monday: "Dispelling Myths" -- Students discuss their biases as well as society's biases toward homelessness. The class explores the causes of homelessness as well as its impact. Students give up cell phones, television, radio, make-up, showers, and changing their clothes beginning Monday night. Students are issued and must carry around with them a clear plastic bag containing only approved soap and hair products, toothpaste and brush.

Tuesday: "Building Safety Nets" -- Students are given individual profiles of homeless people in their community. There is discussion. Students are instructed not to bring lunch on Wednesday -- they are to ask other students for money or food.

Wednesday: "Being Young and Homeless" -- This is presented by Urban Peak, a homeless youth shelter located in Denver. Students without health issues are asked to skip dinner on that night. If they must eat, they are asked to only eat bread. Students are told they cannot drive to school or anywhere on Thursday; they must find their own transportation. Students are further told that they may shower Thursday morning. Students also are informed of "Night Without a Home" on Thursday.

Thursday: "Understanding Your Community" -- Students explore the role of local, county, state, and federal government in providing services and addressing the issue of homelessness. Students must sleep somewhere other than in their own beds. They choose from the following levels:

  • at home on the floor.
  • at home on the back porch.
  • at home in the car in their garage.
  • in the car in the driveway.
  • in their car at Pomona High School's parking lot, supervised by security, staff, and parents.

Friday: "Arvada Shelter Visit" -- Students learn about the shelter down the street from their high school. (Prior to the visit, none of the students have been aware there are shelters in their community.)

Students have told Dallman that Project Safety Net has been a life-changing experience, one that was incredibly hard both physically and emotionally, but valuable. Parents have been most supportive of the endeavor. Many have helped make sure their children respected their commitments and avoided television, and so on. Often parents feel that the project has taught their children understanding and compassion. Some parents have even chosen to spend a frigid night sleeping in the car with their kids in the school parking lot!

"My students have been willing to face ridicule from their own peers to participate in the program," says Dallman. "It was very hard for them. Girls who have not been seen in public without make-up since fifth grade were coming to school in the same clothes with unwashed and unkempt hair. Boys put away their Abercrombie & Fitch clothes, turned off their MP3 players, and put themselves in someone else's shoes. They had to face their own biases during the entire week, and that takes a brave individual."

Throughout the program, students keep journals about their experiences; how they're treated, how they feel about themselves, and what it must be like for the person whose profile they were given at the beginning of the week. Students frequently enter the project with the idea that the homeless are lazy and drug-addicted, and that if they would only pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they would be fine. By week's end, minds have been changed.

"What has stayed with me the most through this project is that there aren't just drunks and drug addicts that are homeless," Monica C., a participant, said of Project Safety Net. "There are families that have suffered a tragedy of some kind and have nowhere to go. It made me really thankful for everything I have."

Quotes like that one and forty other moments from the project tell Dallman that it really works. She joins her students in Project Safety Net and wears the same clothes and rides the bus just like the kids. Support from both parents and administration has been essential to its success.

"I am very proud of the kids who have participated," Dallman shared. "It is hard for kids, especially for teenagers who care so much what their peers think about them, to move out of their comfort zones, which is something they have all done in this project. We are the only school in Colorado to do this project, and my hope is that others will join in because it has been so valuable to the students."

Photo provided by Kerrie Dallman.

Coming Soon...

If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected].

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

03/24/2006