According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 89,503 people were homeless in New York in 2017. Students at Cornwell Avenue Elementary School, in West Hempstead, learned firsthand what it might be like to live like them, without some of their favorite possessions. In November, they took part in the Family and Children’s Association’s Give Up to Give campaign to increase awareness of homelessness on Long Island.
“Our goal was to really get kids to be aware that this is how life is for some children,” said Elyssa Mayer, the school’s psychologist, who organized the campaign. “On one hand, we want them to appreciate the families and the things they have, and also recognize people that are in need.”
In addition to making a small donation, students were asked to give up things like video games, toys and candy for a week to understand how homelessness affects approximately 1,800 youths in Nassau County, according to the FCA. “It was almost like Lent,” Mayer said. “Even if it’s only for a week, we hope that at the end of that week, when they get those items back, they’ll appreciate [them] just a little bit more.”
Even though this was the first time students had participated in this campaign, many of them are still practicing what they learned from the experience. Ten-year-old Madison Cates gave up eating late-night snacks. “I was only a little hungry when I stopped having my nighttime snacks,” she said. “But then I thought about all the other kids that don’t have anything to eat. I learned that I shouldn’t take what I have for granted.”
Kayla Charles, an 8-year-old third-grader who gave up watching TV for a week, said it was difficult at first, but she found other ways to spend her time. “When I don’t watch TV,” she said, “I go outside and play on my trampoline, and I play tag with my sister.”
“I learned that I could use less Wi-Fi,” said Jayden Bonilla-Ayala, a fifth-grader who gave up using a cellphone for a week. “It’s not something that other people have, and it gives me more time to read and play outside.”
Mayer explained that in the past 15 to 20 years, she has noticed a significant shift in social and emotional learning in childhood education. Programs like the Give Up to Give campaign, she said, offer unique learning experiences. “Giving the kids an opportunity to feel like they have contributed in some way,” she said, “is learning that can’t necessarily be taught in a classroom.”
The Family and Children’s Association is a nonprofit organization that supports children and families on Long Island that are homeless. Mayer said she hoped that in the future, Cornwell would start the program earlier to give students more time to prepare for the campaign.
“Now that we have more information, I can get it started a month and a half in advance and really take an opportunity to discuss the impacts of homelessness,” Mayer said. “We really want to show them even if it’s not necessarily face-to-face or physical work, there are other things that can be done to support people and build that community.”