Teaching

Teens and Homeless Share Dinner, Discussion, Insight

By Julie Blair — March 10, 1999 6 min read
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Howard Juris, 69, admits he used to think of many teenagers as ruffians.

Travis Lowder, 16, says he used to believe homeless people were generally strange.

But over a chicken dinner and a conversation about theology last month, the stereotypes began to fall away.

“It is a very pleasant experience, being with the younger generation,” said Mr. Juris as he finished a brownie sundae for dessert. “All we hear about in the papers are the rotten apples.”

Mr. Lowder, who attends Pleasantville (N.Y.) High School, added: “There’s a general stereotype that [homeless people] are crazy. But just sitting down to talk with them dispels the myth.”

Pam Brewer, left, and Beth Moore work in the kitchen at a Youth Service Opportunities Project “work camp.”
--Benjamin Tice Smith

Doing away with preconceptions is always part of the curriculum at the “work camps” run by the Youth Service Opportunities Project, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that aims to introduce teenagers to volunteerism while providing for the needy. Unlike programs that provide only volunteer opportunities, the project also includes classroom-style activities, such as group discussions and writing exercises, to help students acquire greater insight and empathy concerning those in need.

About 1,400 students from across the country will attend YSOP work camps here this year. Many are public and private high school students who are required to perform community service and who attend the program as a part of a school group. Others discover YSOP through churches, in college, or on their own. Some stay for a weekend, while others commit to a weeklong program. The fee is $55 to $75 per student.

Meghan O’Gorman, 14, a student at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, a private Roman Catholic school in Greenwich, Conn., described the program as life-changing. “When I came home, I wanted to tell everyone everything that I’d done,” she said. “I am telling all my friends. I was, like, so moved.”

But that reaction typically doesn’t come until until later. At first, the YSOP experience can be stressful, even scary, students say.

‘A Human Face’

Each work camp begins in the cafeteria of the Friends Seminary, a Quaker school in midtown Manhattan and home to the YSOP office. Students prepare a dinner and serve it to people who are homeless.

On this particular Friday evening, Travis Lowder’s group of 29 students from seven high schools in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and California ate with a dozen folks from Peter’s Place, a drop-in center for elderly and frail men.

“This is the part where we put a human face on the problem” of homelessness, said Edward Doty, the program’s founder and executive director.

The evening worked out well, as it always does, Mr. Doty said.

Before eating, the students and clients played cards or board games; many talked about sports.

One man showed a group of girls the pins he earned while a Navy Seal, then tried to talk them into joining the military.

“Have I convinced you yet?” Angel Torres, 54, asked the girls jokingly at evening’s end.

While some students seemed shy at first, soon the chatter grew so loud that an organization in the adjoining room asked the YSOP participants to lower their voices.

“It’s scary at first when you’re watching them come in,” said Adam Weber, 16, a student at the Athenian School, a private school in Danville, Calif. “It takes a small amount of courage to even initiate contact. Once you get over that, these are just regular guys despite their financial situation.

“I don’t try to feel sorry for them. I try to just treat them like buddies--that’s the way I’d like to be treated,” added Mr. Weber, who paid his way from the West Coast to participate in the YSOP weekend.

After dinner and cleaning up, the students had a group discussion about teenage homelessness and ended the evening with a guided “visualization.” Sitting on sleeping bags in a darkened room, the students were asked to close their eyes and listen to the real-life story of a homeless, schizophrenic woman who had been on the streets for four years.

“What do you fear? What do you need? What do you hope for?” a work-camp leader asked the group.

About 11 p.m., the students went to their sleeping quarters and crashed out on the floor, while several homeless men slept on small cots in a nearby room.

The students spent the next day volunteering at six missions and soup kitchens throughout the city, capping off the weekend with a reflective-writing exercise and group discussion.

“The whole experience from start to finish is one of understanding the habits of service--cooperation, putting your needs in the context of others, going the extra mile for others, and taking leadership,” Mr. Doty said.

Lasting Effects

A former Boy Scout and college activist, Mr. Doty, 58, started YSOP 15 years ago when he realized there were few opportunities for his own teenagers to learn how to volunteer. The project is funded through philanthropic donations, consulting fees, and fees for the work camps, which are paid either by the students themselves or their schools or community groups.

“Teenagers are an enormous reserve of service providers,” he said. “Our society tends to see teenagers as problems, not as problem solvers, and that needn’t be.”

He said he welcomes the increase in the number of schools that require students to perform community service. Only four years ago, he noted, few students who attended YSOP programs had completed any type of service; today, 80 percent of the participating students have volunteered in some capacity before attending.

But he drew a distinction between traditional volunteer work and “service learning,” which is linked to curriculum objectives.

“There’s a recognition in this era of [demanding student] outcomes that just doing community service is not enough,” Mr. Doty said. “We need to relate it to curricular activities. Service learning is a way of connecting service to academics and school achievement.”

“This is not just about giving a couple of hours and walking away; it helps young people be challenged well beyond the weekend,” added Muzzy Rosenblatt, the acting commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services and a frequent speaker at YSOP programs. “They ask: ‘What is my role for the less fortunate? What is government doing, what should government be doing? What are different faith-based organizations doing?’ ”

That kind of thoughtful questioning continues to be the draw for Linda Boldt, the coordinator of community service at the Brearley School, a private K-12 girls’ school in the city. Each year for the past decade, the school has sent the entire freshman class to a two-day YSOP weekend.

“I’m looking for a community-service program that is really involved with the issue of social justice and social responsibility,” Ms. Boldt said. “For those of us that lead secure lives, it is dangerous to feel that the responsibility is simply to do some volunteer work ... and wipe our hands.”

Students, of course, aren’t the only ones to benefit.

“It is invaluable to the clients,” said Jennifer Barrows, the director of Peter’s Place, the drop-in center. “They’ve lived such isolated lives without [personal] connections for such a long period. It is one of the most humanizing things that can happen to them.”

The men from Peter’s Place, meanwhile, beam when asked about the students.

“I have nothing but praise,” said Humberto Gonzalez, 67, a former merchant seaman who traveled the world by ship. “They are great human beings.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as Teens and Homeless Share Dinner, Discussion, Insight

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