During the Spring semester of 2016, I had an internship at Fair Street Elementary School with the school counselor, Dr. Kim Hall. I fell in love with the kids there. I knew that a lot of them went to the Boys and Girls Club for the after school program, and a lot of them would be spending their summer there. I wanted to stay with the kids, so I applied for the Boys and Girls Club summer program.
My daily duties included: leading morning assembly, dropping off my class (4th and 5th graders) at their tutoring class, supervising and recess, leading classes in an art project, supervising a movie time for my class, and putting the kids on the bus to go home. On Tuesdays, my day included taking a group of girls to Frances Meadows to swim, and on Fridays we took the kids on different field trips.
These kids meant so much to me, and, because of this, I went above and beyond in my duties for them. Every morning before work I would go to Kroger and buy candy for that day as rewards for the kids because the hardest part of the job was getting them to walk in straight, quiet lines and the rewards seemed to help. I implemented a token system where when a child was doing something good, they would receive a raffle ticket, write their name on the back, and then drop it into a jar in the classroom. At the end of the week, I would count the raffle tickets and the 3 children with the most raffle tickets would get a prize the next Friday, which I also paid for with my own money. I also bought art supplies for my activities every week that I did not get reimbursed for. But I also spent time just loving the kids. What they need is copious amounts of patience, partnered with sternness that comes from a place of unconditional love. They need to know that someone sees them as more than the type of homes they’re coming from, and that someone takes them seriously.
We had multiple children who were homeless and even more who had been homeless in the past. It changes a lot about how you treat these kids. Mostly, it changes is your patience. These kids are not coming from environments where healthy respect or general public obedience is being modeled for them, and being their authority every day was the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced. But when you find out what a child is going through when they leave, it changes everything. I started to be able to understand their bad behavior a little more–not justify it, but understand it—and that helped me to be more patient with them, because I knew that a lot of their bad behavior was coming from a place of pain. These kids are under more pressure at home (or wherever they’re living) than I have ever been, and probably ever will be. They haven’t been taught how to deal with their emotions. So when they acted out, I was able to respond with more compassion and less frustration. It also gave me the opportunity to serve in any way I could. Whether that was buying that child clothes, signing them up for Backpack Love (a program that sends food home on the weekends with children), contacting their school counselors, or just checking in with them one-on-one to see how they were doing.
I hope that I was able to be a constant in their lives. Their lives are a continuous flow of change and ups and down. Where they live and who they live with, where they go to school, who their parents are in relationships with, if their parents are in or out of jail or have enough money for food that week or to pay the power bill that month, it’s always changing. I hope that when they thought of their days to come that week, they knew without a doubt that I’d be there, regardless of what was going on at home.
In my experience, homelessness in Gainesville is plagued with pride, which I would guess is part of the problem. Again, I can only speak to the families that I have interacted with, but there have been occasions that I would try to help or get a family help, but pride got in the way. These people didn’t want my help, or anyone else’s, because they “don’t need anyone’s input on how to raise their kids.”
There was one situation with a boy who really needed new shoes and told me he would just have to deal with what he had due to the fact that his parents couldn’t get him any. I got my boss to ask his parents if it would be okay if I bought him some shoes, he came back and told me that his parents were mad at me because I was calling them poor. There’s only so much that you can do to help people who don’t want help, but you can always love them, and that’s the best way that I found.
There was a 1st grade boy who I knew previously from my internship at Fair Street who was also going to the Boys and Girls Club. He seemed abnormally tired one week, so I asked him about it. He told me that he’d been sleeping on the floor, because they didn’t have a house right now, and the place that they were staying had bedbugs.
The sense of community between the poverty in Gainesville is strong, and from my experience, most of the people who are homeless with children in Gainesville are rarely out on the streets. They are often staying with an aunt or grandparents in a place that is not suited for that many people. The children are often sharing rooms with their siblings and cousins and are equally being raised by their moms and their aunts. When I told my bosses about this child’s bedbug situation, they said that they knew his mom and that she was a good lady, and that they were probably fine. This was a demonstration of the pride that I was talking about. A lot of the employees and volunteers at the Boys and Girls Club know the children’s parents, and they don’t want me “calling them poor” anymore than the parents do.
I learned that within the inner city community of Gainesville, homelessness is handled surprisingly lightly. The message that a child was homeless would be passed pretty nonchalantly. It was just like, “Oh she’s homeless right now so she will probably be late again today.” I can only speak from my environment, but what I learned at the Boys and Girls Club is that there is an abundance of love and acceptance.
Told By: Cassidy Collier
This story originally appeared in Facing Homelessness in Hall County, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia.