What I want most for my two little boys is for them to grow up to be kind, empathetic and caring people. If they have those qualities, I believe that happiness and success will follow.
While there are so many people and causes in our world that deserve empathy and compassion, one that I feel especially passionate about is homelessness. It is an issue that highlights the haves vs. the have-nots in our society – who, often, owe much of their status to good or bad luck. And it’s an issue that I really want my boys to understand so they learn to build compassion for people less fortunate than them, and they appreciate the comforts they were lucky enough to be born into.
A challenge, however, is finding ways for young children to gain awareness of homeless issues; many of the opportunities to volunteer or engage require a level of self-control and maturity that they cannot consistently maintain.
In an ongoing effort to open up the conversation about homelessness with young kids, I decided to try a project with my older son’s kindergarten class. My friend Rex Holbein, who runs Facing Homelessness, joined me to help. We talked with the class about homelessness and made supply bags for people experiencing homelessness. It was a really beautiful and productive experience!
I hear a lot of parents of young children asking about ways to get their kids involved in helping their community, so I’ll share how we approached this project. Maybe others could use this playbook to try something similar in their classroom or with a group of friends.
I wanted to create bags that were, of course, filled with useful items for people experiencing homelessness. But it also needed to be a fun, creative project for the kids to work on. With that in mind, here are the supplies that I brought to the classroom:
- Brown paper lunch bags, which the kids could decorate
- Regular felt-tip markers (the teacher already had these for us to use)
- White socks
- Fabric markers to draw on the socks
- Hand warmers
- Snack bars
- Packs of cleansing wipes
- Paper for the kids to draw on
Supplies come out to about $5/bag if you shop efficiently. And of course the markers can be reused for future projects.
To begin, all 20 kids sat on the floor in front of us to talk about what we were doing. Rex started the conversation by asking each kid to say the first word that popped into their head when he said the word “homeless.” Answers varied quite a bit, from “flowers” to “dying.” We then talked about what people might need if they didn’t have a home. The items I chose for the bags were centered on hunger, warmth and cleanliness. Although one kid thought I should have just brought in a lot of bricks so we could build houses for people!
After talking and sharing ideas, the children all went back to their desks to work on the project. First they decorated the paper bags with markers – lots of hearts, rainbows, self-portraits and a few robots. I imagine those pictures alone could brighten someone’s day a bit.
Clean socks are always a useful item for people living outside, and I thought that letting the kids decorate plain white socks would make them more special. They went to work with fabric markers, brightening up both the socks and their fingers. They also drew pictures on little pieces of paper to add some extra creativity to the bags.
Finally they added the other supplies: hand warmers, snack bars and packages of cleansing wipes.
We were lucky to have Rex there to bring all the bags back to Facing Homelessness, where he would be able to give them out to people that come by his window in Seattle’s University District looking for supplies. If you are in Seattle, I’m sure they would love more supply bags donated. Facing Homelessness offices have opened in several other cities now too, and I have a feeling many local shelters would be happy to take these bags to distribute. Or, you could always keep these bags in your car so you can hand them to people you see asking for help directly.
An activity like this can take so many forms – I’d love to hear other ideas or implementations.
Seeing how excited the children were to be helping someone, and how unbiased their thoughts were, was so beautiful and motivating. They truly want to help, and they are not yet fearful or judgmental. Starting these conversations and activities early is our best bet for creating a generation of compassionate and caring people.