In April, Deborah Sheldon, social services caseworker for Windsor Social Services, presented 10 Loomis Chaffee seniors with a challenge: What can we do to help homeless people in Windsor?
The students' answer was first to learn more about the needs of homeless people and then to create and deliver 25 at-the-ready resource kits, each in a waterproof backpack, to Windsor Social Services on May 23 for distribution to homeless individuals.
The students were enrolled in Loomis' new Innovation Trimester course — called I-Tri — in which a group of seniors spent the spring term engaged with businesses and community organizations to solve problems and tackle challenges through innovation, collaboration, design thinking, and entrepreneurship.
The ready-made kits were designed to meet both the functional and emotional needs of people experiencing homelessness, according to senior Burke Perotta, one of the students involved in the project. They were waterproof and easy to carry and contained a supply of non-perishable, easy-to-eat, nutrient-rich food. Each kit contained toiletries for men and women, and other useful items like duct tape, a can opener, a lightweight Mylar blanket, and a laminated card with information about services available for food, shelters, medical care, and public transportation.
The kits also included some small treats that the students learned could make a difference to people living outside or in temporary shelter. These included candy and gum, a deck of cards, and some warm, clean socks. The information card also highlighted local places people could go for socializing and recreation, including public libraries, parks, and spiritual centers.
"Sometimes we really have to scramble to pull together all the things people might need in the short term," Ms. Sheldon told the students in her initial challenge to the group. "We hope you can design a takeaway — something that we can have available at the office to help people deal with their situation."
Often it is the Windsor Police who are bring people to the center for assistance, and it's a stressful time for the individuals and the caseworkers trying to help, she said.
Ms. Sheldon explained to the students that people can become homeless for any number of reasons, including home fires, flooding, job loss, domestic violence, substance abuse, overwhelming medical expenses, or even a landlord deciding to sell a house where someone is living.
"On any given day in Windsor, six to eight people are living in tents, in their cars, or are couch-surfing," Ms. Sheldon estimated.
When someone comes for help, she said, she and her colleagues gather food supplies from the food bank, and they work with Windsor service agencies and charitable organizations to collect bedding, clothing, and information about any available services for shelter and transportation.
"No one ever has to go hungry in Windsor," Ms. Sheldon acknowledged, but there are many other, far more difficult challenges for homeless people to overcome. Safe, reliable shelter is in great demand, and many bureaucratic obstacles prevent access. It's difficult to land a job without access to the internet and a reliable address. And families with children have additional needs like school enrollment, she said.
Donated items aren't always appropriate for people without shelter, she furthered. Food that needs refrigeration, heating, or utensils for opening and preparation; things that come in sizes too large or heavy to carry around; and clothes and bedding that get wet outdoors are of little help, she said. In addition, important documentation to obtain services, such as social security cards, identification materials, and birth certificates, can be lost, and they are difficult and expensive to recover.
The I-Tri students spent a week asking questions, making observations, and conducting research to inform their project. They interviewed case workers, food bank staff, police officers, and others in service to the community to learn what kinds of items and information can help and provide some comfort to people who are homeless.
The students also engaged with community members at the Mobile Foodshare distribution event, which the regional food bank hosts every other Friday in Windsor, and at an ad-hoc Wednesday evening food give-away organized by concerned citizens in Hartford's Bushnell Park.
In Bushnell Park, the students met Anthony H. Cymerys '49, known to many as "Joe the Barber" or simply "Joe," who for many years has regularly provided free haircuts to the homeless. According to Joe, when a person looks good, he or she feels good.
Inspired by Joe's commitment to helping others in a way that affirms their humanity, the group of students adopted Joe's "look good, feel good" approach as the guiding principle of their project design. They presented their ideas to Ms. Sheldon, her colleagues at Windsor Social Services, and other members of town government and service organizations on April 15. Joe also attended the presentation. Those who attended liked the students' proposal, and Ms. Sheldon said she especially appreciated their people-centered approach to helping the homeless.
The students committed to delivering kits to Windsor Social Services before Loomis Chaffee Commencement on May 26. In the weeks that followed, they raised money and gathered donations from students, faculty, and staff on campus, ordered special dry-pack backpacks, compiled the kits, and delivered them to Ms. Sheldon in her office at the L.P. Wilson Community Center.
"This means the world to all of us," Ms. Sheldon said, thanking the students and their teachers, Jennine Solomon, associate director of the Pearse Hub for Innovation, and English and Innovation Trimester teacher Tim Helfrich '96.
The students and teachers described the experience as one of the most rewarding projects in this first year of the I-Tri course."I'm grateful for this unique opportunity to work on solving a problem in the local community," said senior Justin Cordero.
For more about the I-Tri, connect to the webpage for the Pearse Hub for Innovation (PHI) website.