Northern kindness brings warmth to homeless

By Jesse Mintz

As a school-wide assembly drew to a close, Angela Staines stood up and asked 330 students, “Who wants to change the world?”

Twenty hands went up.

The reason Angela had asked this question was because WE Schools had offered to come to their school to run a voluntary workshop for students on how to make a difference on issues they cared about.

For one student—Mia—it felt as if the teacher’s words were just for her.

Weeks earlier, Mia and her dad had been on their way to a county fair in a neighbouring town for a day of bone-rattling rides and impossible-to-win games set to the soundtrack of carousel music. As they passed through a park near the fairgrounds, they came upon police evicting a group of homeless people.

“They were just shooing them down the road,” Mia recalls. It didn’t sit well with the soft-spoken 13-year-old from the small coastal village of Seaton Sluice. “It’s not fair to force people to move if they have nowhere to go.”

Mia raised her thoughts with her dad but ultimately felt powerless. As the days passed, she continued to struggle with what she saw, turning it over in her mind, hoping to find a solution. Then Angela spoke, promising power to make a difference. Suddenly, the scene came flooding back. Only this time it wasn’t a painful or confusing memory—it was as a challenge.

Mia heard a call to arms.

Soon she found herself surrounded by schoolmates who also saw challenges waiting to be tackled in the world around them. In the WE Schools workshop they were told to think big. To be bold. They were asked what problems they wanted to address most. And they landed on homelessness in their community—in no small part because of Mia’s impassioned arguments.

A quick word on hardship in the UK: recent years have seen a growing number of people slip through the cracks of the social safety net. Poverty is a daily reality for 14 million people across the UK and there’s been a 169% surge in rough sleeping nation-wide since 2010. Northern England, where Mia’s picturesque village sits on a sandy stretch of coastline, has been particularly hard hit. Once a hub of mines and metal works, many towns and communities have been hollowed out.

It’s that reality, explains Angela, that students in the workshop were responding to. It inspired them to form a WE Schools club and meet every Tuesday over their lunch break to mind-map ways they could help.

Students packing care packages for the homeless

They came up with a two-pronged approach. They would provide warm clothes, toiletries and food for those having to weather cold nights on the street along with handwritten notes so those often overlooked would know they have not been forgotten. They also contacted homeless shelters to ask advice on what items were most needed, wrote to local businesses for donations, worked with the school to reward all students who participated with uniform-free passes and went class-to-class to drum up support.

“People were immediately excited and started bringing in stuff right away,” recalls Mia. In all, they collected hundreds of items, forming big mountains of hats, scarves, gloves and socks destined for the People’s Kitchen, a shelter and outreach organisation in the nearby city of Newcastle upon Tyne.

As the piles grew in Angela’s classroom, spilling from desks onto chairs, they showed what was possible when young people work together.

For Angela, just as important as the impact on the community is the change she’s seen in the students themselves. “They’ve all used their specific talents and contributed to the group […] They feel like they have a bit of power now and they know they can make a difference,” she says proudly. “It’s lovely to see the sense of community and achievement they’ve got from it.”

That community has created a momentum of its own.

The WE Schools club has begun dreaming up new projects to work on to help combat loneliness in local elderly care facilities. And many students like Mia who are leaving primary school this year have plans to start WE Schools clubs in their new schools to keep giving back—proof, Angela says, of the lasting impact on their mindset.

WE Schools club member Lennon, who led assemblies about homelessness for schoolmates and relished sharing his passion, explains how he’s grown since working with WE: “things that were invisible are now visible and that means you can do something.”

The students are on a new trajectory. A community is benefiting. And it all started by just asking the young people a simple question and providing them with the tools to make an impact.

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