Needham Youngsters Pitch In for the Homeless
By Dora Chi firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in the Needham Times and online at needham.wickedlocal.com during the week of April 17, 2017.
If you could spend six hours making the world a little better, what would you do?
A crew of Pollard Middle School students added helping the homeless to their busy roster of homework and extracurricular activities.
As part of the Community Service Learning (CSL) program, which requires eighth-graders to perform six hours of community service, they dedicated their time to Needham-based nonprofit Generic Ministry to prepare necessities, including food and warm coats, for Boston’s homeless.
“(Getting involved) has been in the back of my mind a little bit, but the CSL requirement added an incentive, so I can just kill two birds with one stone,” said Coby Zinner, 13, who, on a chilly Saturday morning, stood by a plastic table folding and labeling pants with Andrew Barnett, 14. They worked behind the First Baptist Church, where a pile of clothes spilled from the church’s two-car-garage-turned-storage-facility that Generic Ministry uses to house community donations.
Parked to the side was the GM van, an unassuming white vehicle that transports sandwiches and an array of donations — from toiletries to socks — to homeless Bostonians gathered on the Common at night.
Although the students are too young to join on distribution trips, they play an instrumental role in the operation. From the Eliot elementary students making sandwiches to eighth-graders organizing clothes, to the van volunteers who make the twice-a-week trips into the city to distribute the donations, everyone has “a role in the cog,” said Kristen Collins, a volunteer of three years who has lent her communications expertise to the cause.
Asked about what drew him to GM, Coby said, “When I started to do my CSL project, I thought, ‘Well, this is a message that I really like.’ This was a really cold winter, so I thought, ‘Maybe if I could help, it would make these people’s lives a little bit better.’”
His mother also volunteers on the weekly van rides.
Ann Ahnert, who teaches special education and also coordinates the CSL program for roughly 450 students, reflected on why the program is critical for students at this age.
“They’re learning what it’s like to be independent,” Ahnert said. “I would say to (students), ‘You need to do something really important to you. You see there is a need out there, and you think you can really meet that need.’ And it’s not about raising $1 million. Sometimes it only means you need to bring awareness to your community about what is happening. It’s (about) teaching kids how to… look at something from a different lens.”
Whether a student is teaching sports to disabled children, or building birthday party packages for those who can’t afford to celebrate, Ahnert said the “whole process is really about being willing to open your mind a little bit.”
Aidan Schaffer, 13, recalled making sandwiches for the homeless back in elementary school, an experience that later inspired him to fulfill his CSL hours with GM. On a recent visit, despite the weather (“It was really cold…it was 5 degrees.“) Aidan and others came by to prepare the van for another week of distributions.
“We just decided (the homeless) have to be outside all day, so it’s only fair for us to come here and do this for them,” he said.
Collins also recalled the efforts of another Pollard student, who completed his CSL requirement with GM in a different way. Jacob Keeley organized a townwide sneaker drive that brought in 32 pairs of sneakers for the homeless.
“He just did it on his own,” she said.
“I think once people get into it, they feel like, ’Oh I’ll just keep going over the six hours,’” said Aidan. “They won’t mind it that much, and they know it’s for a good cause, so they’ll just keep going.”