Whiteland students collect items for homeless

Homelessness may be a hidden problem in Johnson County, but it affects an increasing number of people in the community every day.

One group of Whiteland Community High School students hope a service project both provides relief for those who are homeless as well as raising awareness of the growing problem.

Freshmen students in English teacher Heath Harrison’s homeroom class at Whiteland spent the last few weeks working on a community project to help people struggling with homelessness in Johnson County and Indianapolis. They’ve collected personal hygiene items, first aid kits, diapers, food and much more to be distributed to the homeless in the area.

Their efforts are part of a larger new program throughout Whiteland Community High School to motivate students to make an impact on their school and community.

“I feel like we have become desensitized to homeless people. We always think they’re bad, and it’s not their fault. It’s a stereotype,” said student Prabmaan Dhaliwal. “We’re trying to break that stereotype.”

Months in the making

The students in Harrison’s class started on their project at the beginning of the school year. They discussed what items to collect, planned to make posters publicizing the project, and plotting out the best ways to collect donations.

The students also did research on the homeless population in the Indianapolis area, and were shocked to learn that an average of nearly 2,000 people are homeless in Indianapolis alone, and more in Johnson County as well, they said.

“It really opened my eyes, because living in Whiteland, you don’t really see as many homeless people … but there really are a lot, and it makes you realize that you can be doing your part to help,” said Kaydance Majors, the class project president.

The students recently kicked off a drive collecting donations for the homeless, and they intend to continue the campaign for the remainder of the school year. They are gathering items such as hygiene products, feminine products, laundry detergent, first aid kits, baby products such as diapers, book bags and food that does not need to be cooked. As winter approaches the students right now also want to collect cold-weather gear such as hats, gloves and blankets to protect people from the elements.

Donations have mainly collected at the high school, and bins are set up at various sporting events for collections. Anyone in the community can bring donations to the high school, or at these events, the students said.

To ensure the items get to people who need it most, the class is working with Brian Walls, founder of the nonprofit Tear Down the Walls Ministries in Indianapolis, which provides food, clothing and other essential items to homeless people in the Indianapolis area.

Through its Street Outreach program develops relationships with the homeless population to help people get back on their feet.

“Our class could really set a precedent for other to people to want to help because people have that ability,” Majors said.

The class’s project is one of many going on this year across all grade levels at Whiteland high school, as part of a new graduation requirement the school started this year.

A current emphasis state education standards is learning “employability skills” for life after high school, said Shannon Fritz, director of guidance at Whiteland Community High School.

Students now have to complete multiple tasks to graduate, Fritz said.

“One is to earn their credits, one is participate in an activity that they either learn employability skills, or kind of refine them and tune them,” she said.

This year, the school created a new class where students can learn these skills needed to better prepare them for life after high school. This class, called a homeroom class, or a “Warrior Way” class, is divided by grade level, and it’s where community projects, such as Harrison’s class’s homeless drive, started.

These classes are following three core concepts students will learn and develop over the course of their high school careers — be respectful, be responsible, be safe. These are pulled from the schools already established “good behavior system,” Fritz said.

These first 10 weeks have focused on “be respectful,” in which students in the classes were tasked with coming up with some way to get involved to better help the school or their community.

There are several drives, such as the homeless drive, canned food drives and pet item drives for animal shelters. One class is helping the military organization, Folds of Honor, while others decorated bulletin boards to bring awareness to United Nations Human Rights Day this year.

One class is working with an elementary schools in the district to find times to read to young students or work on crafts with them.

Some of the projects are already done, and others are going into the end of the year. There was a lot of flexibility and room for creativity on what students wanted to do, Fritz said.

Lasting impact

The next focus for the class will be to “be responsible,” where students will learn skills through lessons and activities dealing with preparing for careers after high school, college and other adulthood responsibilities. Toward the end of the year, students will shift to “be safe,” where they will learn about making good decisions, whether that’s health-related or in relationships with other people.

At the end of the program, students will make posters for their class to be displayed in the cafeteria, showcasing what they learned from their lessons and community projects, and reflect on the year.

Harrison’s students said they learned a lot about homelessness through the project. Many of them see this as more than a class project.

“It’s not just going to go away after the project. I feel like it’s going to stick with me,” said student Ellie Kinnee.

Students are set to remain in the same homeroom class during their entire four years in high school, so the freshman students in Harrison’s class will remain in his class until they graduate.

During these four years in the class, students will refine their skills as they get closer to graduation. They’ll also take on new community projects or continue developing the projects they came up with this year, Fritz said.

Keeping the classes together also allows students to build relationships with others they may not always have class with, and it’s an opportunity for teachers to bond with and help these students as they grow, she said.

“It is that idea of trying to make this bigger school feel smaller,” Fritz said. “You’ll have this group that’s going to be consistent from year to year and this teacher that’s going to be consistent from year to year.”