By Tom Holmes
Seventh-graders at Forest Park Middle School are making blankets for the homeless this holiday season. They felt inspired to make the world a better place after reading about those who are homeless in the Forest Park Review. Twenty-one students in Forest Park District 91 are registered as homeless.
"You can use your heart and hands to help others and that says a lot about your character," said student Marie Carlisle, who is also co-advisor of the National Junior Honor Society.
Dan Staser, a social studies teacher at the middle school, said that after students in his class read about John Netherly, founder of the Forest Park-based Bedrock Movement, an initiative that serves those who choose to live on the streets, they invited him to come visit their class on Nov. 30 and talk about how they could help those who are homeless.
"I want the students to see where their work is going, to understand homelessness better and get more satisfaction from what they are doing," Staser said. "What I am doing with Mr. Netherly is talking about which shelter we should go to and safety concerns while we are there."
"I teach kids. I don't teach PARCC scores," Staser added. "I think doing this means more than taking a test. This is a lifelong learning lesson." The state administers the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) to all public elementary and middle schools every spring. Experiential learning projects like making blankets for the homeless are built into the social studies curriculum at the school.
"This experience teaches them more about organizing and leadership than if we just talked about it in the classroom because they are involved," Staser said.
During the Friday morning blanket-making session, Netherly and Staser talked about the students bringing their blankets to actual homeless people in a shelter in Chicago. Netherly offered three options: the women's section at Safe Haven, the women's section at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, and the pregnant women's section at Pacific Garden Mission. Students have also decided to sponsor a charity dodgeball tournament on Dec. 14. They will use the proceeds to buy toys for children who are homeless.
"We got this idea by learning how many homeless people there are in this country — that there are 14,000 homeless people in the Chicago area alone. We voted as a class to choose this as the project we would work on," said student Jisela Costello.
"I think a lot about homeless people in Forest Park," she added, "especially now that it's really cold outside."