Our work in action.
Expedition 1 – Homeless Children Inner City Utah
Starting March 12, 2014 Karen and I began an 18 month volunteer post serving the homeless children of the Inner City of Salt Lake City, Utah. Home of the 2002 Winter Games, Salt Lake City and the surrounding area is home to one million people. A conservative area with a fairly religious temperament that permeates the population, not the type of place you would typically expect to see a large homeless population. Because of our background we were assigned to work with the children of the chronic homeless. To our surprise we discovered that there are nearly 5,000 homeless children in Utah under the age of 15. Surprisingly there are over 2.5 million homeless children in the United States with 50% of them younger than six years of age. In the world as a whole there are an estimated 100 million with 250,000 children dying weekly from disease and malnutrition. An estimated two million children are sexually abused through child pornography. WOW! These statistics made Karen’s and my assignment seem like a pleasure.
By the nature of their situation, all of these children fall way behind in academic and social areas, with a high majority dropping out of school before graduating. These “children at risk” are very resilient. If given half a chance they can succeed. But left unattended, they potentially develop the habits of the adults surrounding them and become the criminal, drug abusers and vagrants of tomorrow. Homeless families are constantly on the move, sleeping in camp sites, shelters, on the streets, or in cars shifting from one temporary setting to another. Homelessness is hard on the parents but it is devastating for the children. This is especially true when considering the challenge of competing in a normal classroom setting. This culture presents a total loss of a sense of place, belonging, community, friends, all the elements necessary to healthy child development and school success. Jobs, housing, food, counseling, therapy and health care can change the lives of these parents and in turn correct the path of the children.
Our role to work with homeless families was to assist the children in our assigned areas to advance to the next level in school. We identified 14 children at risk ages 5-13. Of immediate concern were two young girls who had fallen way behind and were definitely not going to pass to their respective next grade levels. After an assessment, we concluded that there was nothing cognitively or developmentally holding them back, rather it seemed to be a complete lack of home support necessary to support them in their homework. They were both totally lacking the requisite skills in reading and math specifically. To add to the mix was their younger five year old brother who didn’t speak and wasn’t yet potty trained. It was discovered that their mother was in and out of drug rehab and sold herself for drugs. The father was a good man but being illegal, was not able to maintain consistent employment. Is it any wonder that the girls had trouble succeeding at school? After consistently meeting with the girls over a six week period in formal tutoring sessions, we were able to help them catch up to the rest of their classmates.
They advanced as required and appeared more mature for the sacrifice. Over time our little group was expanded to include a broad variety of children varying in age, but all struggling with similar issues. Soon the group became a social network providing mutual support to one another regardless of age. Due to the common circumstances and intense desire to “fit in” this group setting began to fill in for the home life they all were missing.
Another example which strikes my attention was a five year old boy, half way through kindergarten and only he only knew three uppercase letters. His brother had repeated kindergarten the previous year and so it was expected that he would follow suit. Within three months of Karen working with him four times a week for 20 minutes each time, he began to show remarkable improvement and within the year was fluently reading 80 words/minute. As it turned out he was an amazingly bright child but due to low expectations he would have been more than content to just follow the path of his brother. After our intervention, he began an avid reader and surpassed the skills of his brother.
All the children we had the opportunity to work with were delightful children but surprisingly Karen and I came to the conclusion that across the board, all these children lacked common gratitude. It shocked us at first but soon we realized that as the children of the generational poor most of the things they had were given to them. Living in this world of handouts and entitlements, as bad as their environment was, they all had come to the point that they seemed to expect help.
This made us both quite uncomfortable. We realized that beyond the basic skills of math and reading which we were fostering, there was a complete lack of community values and societal virtues. These historical standards of society appeared to be totally missing from their development.