WUV You Bags and Prayer Circles? Student Community Action at Work

I know this story won’t gain huge numbers of hits for this blog, but I need to write it. Further, I think it can greatly hearten educators to read it.

There are moments working with students in a Chicago school that give a person joy and pride for the kids. The Student Voice Committee at Reilly School (which I’ve mentioned before) took on a project this year (among several they initiated) to assemble survival backpacks for homeless people who hang out under the clutch of highway overpasses by their neighborhood. They called the backpacks “WUV You bags” — a teeny bit silly to me, but so what. And they saw this as more than just “service” — rather, something larger, a way to demonstrate the commitment of the school to the neighborhood.

After weeks of brainstorming, soliciting donations of tooth brushes, water bottles, snacks, etc. from local stores (public speaking, really — writing call scripts and calling store managers), and assembly (what to do when there are 21 bags but only a dozen rolls of toilet paper?) it was time to deliver the bags. A dozen bouncy middle-schoolers, accompanied by teacher-sponsor Betty Garcia and volunteer-advisor me, set off on a glorious Friday after school, hiking toward the area where the homeless folks hung out.

With the first man spotted, the entire group clustered around him — and he refused the bag. What was up? Ms Garcia and I guessed that all the teenage attention was too embarrassing, so we suggested people should be approached by no more than three or four students at a time. This seemed to work nicely and allowed for brief personal conversations between the young people and their recipients, while the teacher and I watched from a distance to make sure everyone was safe.

These seventh graders were like handsome, spirited colts. When they came to a hill beside one of the overpasses, it had to be climbed, with celebratory waves from the top and smartphone pics snapped from below. Then back to the task.

Gradually bags were handed to surprised panhandlers, with several left next to tents where the inhabitants were away — perhaps at jobs some do hold down. Finally, with just one bag left we headed back to school when a lone man was spotted hanging in an open driveway next to a gas station. Four students ran over, but our view was blocked as a car pulled up to the gas pumps. Ms Garcia and I moved for a better view . . . to see four seventh graders and a grizzled-looking man holding hands respectfully in a prayer circle he’d requested.

I’m not a religious person, but that moment — what words do it justice?

Postscript: I sat yesterday afternoon with three of the girls and Ms Gracia, reflecting on some of the issues during the year and possible ways to address them in the future. The girls began discussing how they had changed over the course of seventh grade. They’d been pretty irresponsible and uncaring the previous year, they readily volunteered, but now they felt strong and confident. They glowed.