Manchester students learn the power of giving back

By Peter Chiykowski

When the students of Bollin Primary School in Greater Manchester set out on a month-long quest to collect care packages for homeless young people, they never expected they’d create an impact that would still be changing lives a year later.

Their goal started out simple enough: take the month of December to help others by giving back instead of receiving. It was an idea that had come about due to their participation in the WE Schools programme, which encourages young people to step up and make a difference in their local community and the world at large.

The students decided to pair up with Depaul UK’s local shelter, which provides at-risk, 18-to-25-year-olds a safe place to stay and develop skills for independent living.

Every day, one student from each of Bollin’s 13 classes brought in a donation from a list of much-needed personal care items. By the time school closed for the Christmas holidays, students expected to have a modest collection of toiletries, clothing and food to donate.

“As it turns out, our students were a lot more generous,” laughs year-four teacher Vicki Watson, who saw her students come to life as they learned about the issue of homelessness.

To kick off collections, Bollin Primary School invited a speaker from Depaul UK to talk to students about the reality of life on the streets. Greater Manchester is in the midst of a homelessness crisis with 5,564 reported to be sleeping rough and large numbers at risk of eviction or home repossession—as many as 1 in 62 in some communities.

Students had seen homelessness on the street, but for the first time were learning about the uncounted “hidden homeless”—people sleeping in cars or “sofa surfing.”

“It made them really think about what they had that they just took for granted,” said Watson. “What would it be like if you hadn’t got your comfy bed, your sheets, your shower every morning?”

Year four student Eve, 10, remembers leaving the assembly with a totally new perspective on the many unseen causes of homelessness.

“I’d see people outside shops sitting with blankets and bags and think, ‘Why?’” admits Eve. “But people don’t choose to be on the streets. They go bankrupt and they can’t pay for their house, or for a medical reason.”

The campaign that Watson describes as a reverse Advent calendar—a calendar for giving back instead of receiving—took off quickly and the large cardboard collection boxes in each classroom began to fill. It became clear that students weren’t going to stand by over the break as young people in their community went without basic necessities.

“Stuff kept coming,” Watson laughs, still amazed months later. “I had a classroom full of shampoo. I could have been the cleanest person in the world.”

Lewis, 10, searched his home for extra toiletries and took trips to local shops for more. “The best bit was knowing it was going to homeless people,” he adds. “Feeling like the thing I brought just helped someone—it makes you feel proud.”

The Depaul UK representative came to pick up the donations on 18 December, expecting to find a few boxes of useful items. Instead, he discovered boxes piled high on the school hall stage—more underwear, pyjamas, hats, scarves, tinned foods, shampoo, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, hairbrushes and shaving cream than he could possibly fit in his car.

“He nearly had a heart attack,” laughs Watson.

The driver loaded up everything the shelter needed for its 2018 festive care packages and promised to return for the remainder in the new year. But students continued to bring in donations when they returned to school.

Watson is certain why her students continued, even after the break, to take action on homelessness. “They knew it wasn’t going to go away at Christmas,” she says sombrely.

After the second pick-up in February, Depaul UK’s Manchester shelter announced they had enough donated items for next year’s care packages as well. Students were thrilled.

“It just makes you feel so warm and happy,” says Eve. “You’ve done something to help people less fortunate.”

Watson says her students have become more aware of other issues affecting their communities as well, from recycling to making their school more accessible.

“It’s surprising how perceptive they’ve become,” Watson says. “They’re seeing things around them that can be improved.”

It’s inspired them to continue to want to make a difference. So, next year the school is planning to do another reverse Advent calendar. But with their local shelter already well-stocked for 2019, they plan to pick a new charity to support with their generosity.

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