Monday, August 18, 2014

School Daze

Throughout the annuls of time, there have been three words that most kids have dreaded more than any other. Three little words that have struck fear into the hearts and minds of children from New Mexico to Nepal; from Alabama to Algeria; from Kalispell to Kalamazoo:

Back. To. School.

We can argue how educational strategies have evolved over the years and how the intent, purpose, and function of schools have morphed. But no matter how and why the logistics and semantics change, it seems most kids are just not as excited as their parents when late August rolls around and they are hoarded back into classrooms for another 9-month term.

Kids don't like school because it limits their autonomy and freedom. It forces structure and demands they follow a regiment and schedule that they have been unlearning since the last bell rang in May. Just when they get the hang of 'doing nothing,' it is suddenly time to abdicate their summer thrones and march toward the gallows of Geometry and Social Studies. Now, to be fair, I will admit there are some kids who enjoy school and can't (secretly) wait for the summer to end so they can (secretly) hit the books again. But these children are the outliers and not the norm. I was NOT one of these kids.

Over the years, I've found that many homeless kids often look forward to school for the very reason other kids dread it. For children who are accustomed to the chaos and unpredictability of a homeless lifestyle, the stability and regiment of school offers comfort. For exactly 8 hours a day, these kids know they will have access to functioning restrooms, hot food, education, structure, companionship, and protection. Imagine a world where nothing is permanent and then insert a block of time where you could have access to mentorship and dignity. For some kids, 'back to school' means reemergence into society.

It is important to have good schools and teachers who care about more than their lesson plans. After-school programs can even extend opportunities to children who might not get the chance to participate in activities suck as sports or music or art. Schools become an instrumental part of the community because they can foster hope and a sense of purpose in children who have been been void of such sentiment. Going back to school for some kids is one of the greatest experiences of their life. Weird. I never would have imagined that a few years ago.

... Who knows what I will imagine a few years from now?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Every Day, a Holiday!

Happy National Thrift Store Day! (Well, at least in a few days, but more on this a little later...)

A couple hundred years ago, when America defied the odds and defeated the British to win independence, we won the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But our celebratory attitude didn't stop with the bill of rights and the constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Over the years, we have honed and crafted our drafting skills, culminating with a society that literally has a holiday for each day of the year.

Some are traditional and we join with the rest of the world (Christmas, Kwanza Ramadan, Hanukkah, just to name a few) in celebration. These are the days everyone has circled on their calendar, or at least highlighted on their Google account. But, in the spirit of American excess, we have also gone above and beyond in constructing holidays to honor just about everything.

October 4- National Frappé Day. Who doesn't enjoy these tasty, refreshing treats. If any dessert item warranted a day of homage, truly frappés top the list, right?

March 14- National Pi Day. Okay, all you math nerds, live it up by celebrating 3.14.... The number that never ends accompanied by jokes that also never seem to end.

September 30- National Mud Pack Day. If you are the type of person inclined to cover your body with mud, but too embarrassed to admit it, then this day is for you! Wallow away with no pangs of guilt because everyone else is doing it on this day, too.

November 17- National Facebook Unfriend Day. Purge your account of all those faux-friends you have been dying to cyber-eliminate. Status update: you've been deleted.

May 1- Loyalty Day. Hmm.... This attribute only gets one day? Does this mean the other 364 days are unofficially 'disloyalty' days?

August 17- National Thrift Store Day. I bring this up because I have shopped at thrift stores for years. I've purchased clothing, furniture, cutlery, and just about every other item one can think of. Over the years, it has even become fashionable and trendy to hit up thrift stores for vintage items and that 'authentic worn-out look.' People peruse the aisles, looking for great things at bargain prices.

But for many, thrift stores have been places of necessity and not the hipster hangouts others have turned them into. Purchasing pre-worn clothing is a festive activity sandwiched in between Pilates and the coffee shop. The allure for many of these 'thriftees' is that shopping in thrift stores is a window into another culture. A world they can visit and then check out of when they hit the parking lot. There is nothing wrong with this and I'm not passing judgement, but for others this experience is a staple of their existence and not a trendy tryst.

Thrift stores fill a felt need in society because they allow people to still retain a sense of autonomy by selecting what they want and not having to take what is given. They empower people who often feel powerless.

So, the next time you venture into your local thrift store looking for something cool to wear or place on your mantle, remember that the person 2 aisles over might not share your exuberance. For them, excitement and novelty has been replaced by necessity.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pack to Help

How quickly the summer is evaporating into autumn. The air will soon acquire that certain crispness reminding us that winter is not too far off. The shadows will grow longer as the sun retires earlier and sweatshirts replace tank tops as the preferred article of clothing. And, for many, school is looming on the horizon.

We often have school-aged children at Samaritan House. Over the past years, we have written quite a few articles addressing the difficulties homeless kids have in regard to school. The emotional and physical tolls are extensive and there is another issue that often makes the journey back to school fearful and trepidatious: a lack of proper supplies. Many homeless children lack the basic resources needed to begin the year on a positive note. This is an area that is easy to remedy and you can play an important role.

The following items would be greatly appreciated. You can call the office for more information or just drop by with any of the following items. Every little bit helps and we are appreciative for your donations.

Backpacks
Three-ring binders
Wide-ruled paper
Pencils
Erasers
Ruler
Glue
8 pack markers
24 count crayons

Thank you for your consideration in helping kids prepare for their future by not allowing school to become a terrifying place. You are investing in the lives and dreams of children who will play a role in changing this world.

...one backpack at a time.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Global Roots of Homelessness

If I asked you to guess the number one cause of homelessness in the world, what would you say?

Unemployment? It makes sense when people lose their jobs, financial situations can spiral out of control, resulting in homelessness. Mortgage and rent payments are missed and utility bills are sacrificed in order to purchase food and other tangible needs. So, it has to be unemployment, right?

Nope.

Medical bills? America can be a scary country for someone who is sick or needs intensive or continuous medical care. Prolonged health problems or unexpected illness can lead to a monetary quagmire that surely indicates this is the leading cause of global homelessness!

Sorry, wrong again.

Domestic violence? There are many reasons people become violent and none of them justify hurting others. Thousands of people (mainly women) are forced to literally run for their lives every year because they are in an abusive relationship. Often, there is no place for them to go so they end up in rescue shelters. It seems this might be the correct answer.

No.

The number one cause of homelessness in the world is glaringly obvious yet something people rarely guess. It occurs almost continuously around the globe but we rarely consider the logical conclusion of it because it is such a multilayered issue. This issue is perpetually in the news but usually not covered in the context of homelessness. The thing that renders more people homeless than any other cause in the world is war. If you take a second and think about this it makes sense even though it is usually not a person's first (or even top 5) answer.

Wars have been raging on planet Earth since the first man hit his buddy over the head with a club and forced him to leave the cave. And while the evolution of war has become more mechanized and sinister as the centuries unfolded, the basic equation has not changed: Specific ideas + violent conflict + aggression + hostilities based on just about anything = displaced people who have become collateral damage.

When we examine wars, the participants and issues are scrutinized by politicians, military personnel, as well as civilians. We watch as events unfurl on CNN and we have become desensitized to what is really actually happening on the ground, in real time. We are involved in between commercial breaks and taking trips to the grocery store or changing the baby's diaper. I think most of us lament when things get bad enough to cause war, but we fail to think about the hundreds of thousands of people who become homeless every year around the world because of it.

Sometimes its good to look around and remember that homelessness is not just an American problem.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fear

We all have phobias and they come in different shapes and sizes. The fears that grip us range from eight-legged creatures to heights to enclosed spaces. I recently read a report that public speaking outranked the fear of death; Basically, people would rather die than have to stand and talk in front of a group. Fears unite us because they indicate vulnerability and they transcend socioeconomic strata. Some appear very rational (fear of the dark) while others seem odd (fear of the color red).

One of my biggest fears is the possibility that my vision will be taken away but I'm not concerned that I will suddenly become blind.

I have terrible eyesight and alternate between wearing glasses and contact lens. It is quite unsettling being dependent upon foreign, external devices to help me see. I used to do a great deal of traveling and my biggest fear was that I would lose my glasses or contacts and be forced to traverse airports and other monstrous places by means of squinting and fumbling around in a world of blurry misdirection. Fortunately that never happened but the threat always felt genuine. When I began working at Samaritan House I met several people who were in the same ocular boat as me... Glasses and corrective lens were necessary to function.

One young lady told me a story about losing her glasses and not being able to afford an eye appointment or having enough to purchase new glasses for almost 3 months. She tried salvaging through the 'used glasses' bins at numerous thrift stores but was unable to find anything that helped. For nearly 90 days she groped about during the day and was rendered nearly useless at night. She experienced headaches and found it almost impossible to function at her job, a local grocery store in the Oregon town where she lived.

As I listened, a nervousness and anxiety crept over me because I could relate to her story. And while I knew that even if something like this happened to me, I could easily replace my glasses or contacts. She did not have that luxury. And honestly, was it really a luxury? It seemed like more of a necessity because not being able to see properly affects every area and aspect of a person's life. I think we might take this for granted because many of us have not had to worry about this.

Prioritizing our financial needs should not mean having to forgo things such as eye care. Many of our residents have had to make difficult decisions similar to this. Which is more important... Utilities, rent, groceries, or purchases that allow us to physically function? If you have never had to make this kind of choice then count yourself blessed. But if you have been in situations like this, then you understand that sometimes fear means more than sleeping with a nightlight on.

Monday, July 21, 2014

On This Date

When I was a kid my favorite part of the newspaper was the small, inconspicuous section of page 4 called, "On This Date in History." It was only a column consisting of a few paragraphs, but it was infinitely interesting to me. Specific years would be listed and facts were supplied to state something (hopefully) cool that transpired on whatever the current date was in a previous year. Sometimes the years would span back over a century and it was fun to track the progress of certain inventions or advancements in technology.

Other years would sing the praises of sports events and the the birth and passing of famous people. Politicians seemed to finagle their way into certain entries and specific legislative decisions could be tracked to their infancy and then cross-examined by the current political climate.

But the epitaphs that moved me the most were the ones dedicated to certain people who accomplished great things because they saw a need and thought it might also be nice to provide a solution. And many of these individuals were not famous. They inspired me to want to (someday) have an accomplishment of my own that others would read about a century from now. How could I contribute to the betterment of this planet in such an epic manner that would be remembered for all time?... or at least while newspapers were still relevant.

Now that I'm older and less idealistic than when I was 10, I'm afraid I have consigned myself to the fact that I lack the energy to change the entire world on such a grand, Herculean scale. Realism has replaced my youthful zest and I happily admit I feel more comfortable trying to effect change in smaller ways and stages. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the sheer volume of infinite problems plaguing our world, I can hone in on one or two fixable issues in my own, immediate sphere of influence.

Changing the world doesn't mean we have to discover the means to world peace or invent a serum that eradicates the common cold or take Justin Bieber under our wing and mold him into a fine, outstanding citizen. It's much simpler than that.

We change our world by reaching out to others and addressing the needs in their world, which then affects THIS world. If can grasp the idea that our stories and experiences are intertwined and related to others, then we no longer can claim exclusivity to our own personal narrative. Our story becomes linked with everyone else's and when we help improve the lives of others, we are improving our own situation on numerous levels.

And who knows, perhaps a selfless act of kindness and involvement you commit today will be read about 80 years from now. What will YOUR date in history be?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Twelve Zeros

1,000,000,000,000.

1 trillion dollars contains more zeros than most of us can conceptualize. I am usually happy when my 'zero count' passes one, so twelve of these goose eggs lined up next to each other seems absolutely otherworldly.

This morning I was watching one of the national news programs when something interesting caught my attention. A report was shown that indicated the amount of debt college students in America have accumulated has surpassed the trillion dollar mark. There have been measures passed to alleviate some of this debt. And this also doesn't take into account money provided from grants and scholarships awarded to people. But the truth of the situation is sobering: college is expensive.

It seems education can be a double-edged sword. It offers more opportunities for an individual to make a living, but the debt accrued can hang like an albatross around one's neck for decades. I've spoken to many high school students who are leery about going to college because of the student loans. Others have decided against it, altogether. For homeless kids, the daunting task of pursuing a college education can be even more overwhelming due to a lack of a permanent address or low grades caused by perpetual transferring in and out of schools.

The report focused on a Colorado school district that brokered an agreement with one of the local community colleges in their area. These two entities have joined forces, allowing high school students to take college courses. Now, this is not uncommon and many school districts have programs like this. What's happening in Colorado is a bit different because the alliance between the public schools and the college extends to 9th and 10th graders and, here's the kicker... The classes are provided for free.

One girl was profiled in the story and she had saved nearly $70,000 by utilizing this program. She ended up graduating with an Associates Degree 9 days before her high school graduation! This particular young lady was one of several siblings who would not have been able to go to school without a significant and sizable loan. Kids are offered the chance to take concurrent college classes at their high schools.

The logistics and bureaucracy involved with a merger and partnership like this must have been a nightmare. But it shows that programs like this can be successful and, even more importantly, can make a tangible difference to students who would not have an opportunity, otherwise. Thinking outside the box is the only way we can address issues that refuse to go away.

Now, hopefully we can eliminate some of those zeros.