College Students Find Ways to Help the Homeless

A small child stares out from a painting on the wall. In another rendering, a child seems to be screaming -- her eyes wide. These works were created by homeless children in Nashville, Tenn. Their thwarted dreams often come across in the simple painting of a house with a yard.All of the art hangs in a cafeteria at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The exhibit is one piece of a widely praised and many-pronged effort by Vanderbilt, one of the nation's top-ranked universities, to build relationships between the poorest of the poor and the mostly privileged college students.Student volunteers take sack lunches each month to street people as part of Meals on Heels, which includes business-sized cards listing area agencies where homeless people can get help.The students go into economically depressed East Nashville to teach middle school students how to manage money earned from their own recycling venture. They visit shelters for homeless families, getting to know the kids and giving their moms a break."We never presume too much about what we're doing. We're not changing anybody's life," said Nicole Falgoust, who heads the shelter visitation program. "We just want to understand them and maybe give them a lift while doing that."The center of this constellation is Chrysalis, a student organization that originated with one of Vanderbilt's innovative community service scholarships awarded for volunteer work in high school.Like other service scholarship recipients, student Jason Dinger was required to design a community project of his choice at Vanderbilt. Two years ago he launched the student volunteer group and named it Chrysalis after the cocoon phase of a butterfly. For his efforts, Dinger received a 1996 President's Service Award, co-sponsored by the Points of Light Foundation in Washington, D.C., before taking off for Africa to work in a rural health clinic.Now, Chrysalis has put Vanderbilt on the leading edge of what some national observers see as a new rise of social consciousness among college students nationwide. The university ranked 20th in the recent U.S. News and World Report listing of the 229 "best national universities.""We've seen an age of activism among students in recent years that we've never seen before, and Vanderbilt's program has really been the microcosm of that," said Katy McGiffin, field organizer for the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, based in Los Angeles."Maybe it's because there is definite poverty and homelessness and the students (in urban areas) are affected because they see it every day as they walk to class," said McGiffin, whose organization promotes National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, Nov. 17-23.Indeed, the visibility of the homeless in Nashville has helped stir people to action, according to Allison Niedzwiecki, co-chairwoman of Chrysalis. Many of the city's homeless people came to town dreaming of succeeding in the music business. The students -- on the verge of realizing their own dreams of graduating from college -- can relate on a certain level."People come to Nashville for the music, realizing that there's a lot of opportunity here," she said. "But the city isn't necessarily full of promise for some of these people, so then they're left out in the cold. "Who can't understand the fear of failure, no matter what your background?"In the highest recorded turnout, some 900 students attended Vanderbilt's Freshman Volunteer Day this fall to learn ways they could volunteer. Nationally, the problem of homelessness in particular is galvanizing many students. About 400 colleges will observe National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week; some students plan to fast for a day and contribute the money saved to an agency that provides meals for homeless people, according to organizers.At Vanderbilt, Meals on Heels brings the food to homeless people. Once a month, volunteers canvass the streets handing out about 100 lunches -- packed with two sandwiches, carrots, cookies and a container of juice. Slipped beside a peanut butter and jelly and a ham and cheese sandwich is the Chrysalis Card with agencies listed -- and slots holding a quarter to call for help."It's surprising how many people out there don't know there are places where they can get a hot meal and some clothes. A lot of these people may have just arrived in town, and they don't have the first idea about where to go to find a job," Niedzwiecki said.Some students -- from families prosperous enough to pay $30,000 a year for a Vanderbilt education -- have become friends with homeless people, both on the streets and in the shelters."Before I got to Vanderbilt, homeless people were the guys on the roadside holding signs saying 'Will work for food,'" said Will Bernal, co-chairman of Chrysalis. "But a lot of the people are fascinating. One guy I talk to a lot just loves books, so sometimes I find him on the street and give him some to read. He cares about life and learning.""When you get to know them, you realize how easy it can be to have it happen to you. Lose a job, have trouble finding another, and about anyone could be in that boat," said Bernal.[EDITORS: STORY COULD END HERE.] The students are a blessing for Scharmaine Walton, who stays at Nashville's Family Life Center -- along with her four children and 100 strangers. Once, maybe twice, a week the students come to cook food and read stories to the often-restless children, allowing mothers like Walton to take a breather from their broods."It's like they're taking a 100-pound bag of rocks off my shoulders, when they come," said Walton, 28. "I don't get into much of the conversations they have, like some of the women do; I just go relax." At the shelter, the women often warn the female students to make better choices."They'll say, 'Don't you ever do this or that, like I did,' and you've got to listen because she knows what she's talking about," Falgoust said. "It's very humbling."Falgoust, an anthropology student, believes the children may benefit the most from the shelter visits. They're given paint and crayons to create the works later displayed in Vanderbilt's cafeteria."The best thing for the kids is probably when our male volunteers come along to read to them. Maybe seeing them will help the kids know that a man can be kind and caring," she said. "These guys are often the only positive male role models the kids have ever seen."SIDEBAR ONECollege Kids Reach Out to Low-Income ChildrenAt Vanderbilt University, student volunteers and middle school children from Nashville's high-poverty areas comb the college campus collecting cans to recycle, then put the money made from deposits into a bank account.The venture is part of Project G.R.O.W., which stands for Giving, Respect, Ownership and Worth, a component Vanderbilt's student-run Chrysalis program."These kids aren't homeless but they're definitely at risk," said Chrysalis co-chairman Will Bernal. "We do things like take them to play ball or to our cafeteria to eat with us, which they get a big kick out of.""We took some to a Vanderbilt basketball game to show them the fun side of college. A lot of these kids may have never thought about going to college. Now maybe they will."One goal is to teach money-management skills to the children, who usually are between the ages of 9 and 14 years."We gave them a few choices of how to use their money," said Bernal, and the children chose to help landscape Nashville's homeless shelters.SIDEBAR TWOCollege Scholarships for Community Service -- Catching On at Top Universities.In recent years, some of the country's top colleges and universities have begun offering scholarships to reward and encourage students' service activities in the community.At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., community service scholarships are worth half the price of $19,600 tuition. They are granted each year to two entering freshman and two currently enrolled students who have outstanding records of community service.The scholars are required to continue their community service work at Vanderbilt and in the wider Nashville community, while helping to drum up support among students for volunteer activities.The older student recipients serve as mentors to the younger ones, as part of what they consider a close-knit and supportive "community of scholars."In addition, 22 schools in 11 states in the southeast and midwest offer four-year Bonner Scholarships, started in 1990 by the Bonner Foundation in Princeton, N.J. A goal of the assistance is to allow needy students to focus on community service while in college, in time they would otherwise be forced to spend earning money though work-study. There are now about 1,600 Bonner scholars, each receiving $1,870 during the school year and $1,400 over the summer.The approach is catching on elsewhere. Brown University in Providence, R.I., St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and Colby-Sawyer in New London, N.H., are among other schools that offer community service scholarships.


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