The 10 high school students who put together a nine-month project about Manatee County’s homeless will never view life from a naive perspective again.
Each one calls the experience a life-changing event.
The student group, Humans of Manatee, is part of the international Future Problem Solvers. On June 5, the group not only captured first place in the international annual competition in Michigan, but was further recognized with a “Beyonder” award.
Deb Yaryura, an adult volunteer with Humans of Manatee, notes that the Beyonder award isn’t offered every year.
“It describes projects that outdistance the others so far, they are not even on the same scale,” she said.
The group went into this year’s project knowing it was a competition, and the accolades they bring back to Manatee County are exciting. But the experience itself was much more valuable.
The students launched their “Just Say Hello, Homeless are Humans too” campaign with admitted trepidation, but as they journeyed through an experience that called for interaction with the homeless, their perceptions of those on the streets of Manatee County quickly changed.
“The main focus was just to say hello,” said Madelyn Kumar, a Southeast High School senior. “We were all scared at first and didn’t want to make eye contact with them, but that simple ‘Hello’ started conversations that made us realize that we aren’t really different. In the end, they just want to be treated like a human and for people to acknowledge them.”
The project’s goal: “to connect with them and talk one on one with them with dignity and respect,” she said.
While the project is over and the awards have been won, Kumar said the lasting impression the project had on the group will keep them involved in a newly found passion. The project’s goal was to be competitive, but the aftermath sparked a new mission: “Encouraging the community to be more accepting of the homeless,” said Kumar.
Home Is Where The Heart Is founder Laura Licoski has spent three years working with the homeless. It is a personal ministry for Licoski, who said the students received very little guidance and came into the project thinking outside the box.
“They talked to an incredible number of homeless people,” she said. “What is inspiring is the depth of the questions the students had for them. They really wanted to know why they were out there on the streets. Eventually people began to open up to them and share their life stories. I had one tell me that she doesn’t think those kids realize just how much they impacted her.”
Licoski said the project was never meant to solve the homeless problem, something she said would never happen without an emphasis on rehabilitation given the level of addiction on the streets.
“We all know that the only way someone is going to get off the street is if they want to,” she said. “This project was always just about bringing love to the streets, and to show others that the homeless are just like everyone else.”
Interaction with the area’s homeless isn’t always a positive thing, the students admit. But they are quick to fire back question for question when they ask, “Is it really any different than any other group?” asked Alex Kumar, a freshman at Southeast High School.
He had the same stereotypes many have of the homeless before the project began. “I thought they were all druggies or lazy,” he said. “But I learned that a lot of them are just victims of circumstance. Most people are just two paychecks away from being homeless. A lot them told me they feel like a used piece of furniture sitting out on the sidewalk that nobody wants.”
Kumar said his experience taught him that the “vast majority don’t want to be homeless. This project is important to us, and even though the competition is over, we plan on continuing it. They need something constant in their lives, and we have to be one of those constants for them.”
There are an estimated 5,000 adults and 1,800 children that are homeless in Manatee County.
Not stopping now
Madelyn Kumar said to stop now would be like turning your back on a friend.
“We’ve established relationships with them,” she said. “To back out now is something I couldn’t imagine doing. I know I couldn’t survive 15 hours of being homeless. I have a better understanding of how strong they have to be and how resilient they are, and sometimes they need all of that just to find a place to sleep.”
The overall project included making a homeless documentary, which did well at the Sarasota Film Festival in September and won the Film Rush Manatee! student film festival earlier this spring. They spent their last Saturday in May walking in the footsteps of the homeless, eating with them and visiting where they “live.”
The project received international exposure at the Future Problem Solvers competition.
“A lot of students said they were going to go back and start their own homeless campaigns,” Alex Kumar said. “Even some of the judges said our project changed their perspective of the homeless. A smile and a ‘Hello’ are free. They don’t cost anyone anything, but giving it to these people who just want to be acknowledged can really change and brighten their day.”
The students understand that first impressions with homeless encounters can often solidify negative perceptions. The goal is to get the community to understand that one negative experience doesn’t define a community.
We’ve established these relationships with them. To back out now is something I couldn’t imagine doing.
Madelyn Kumar, Humans of Manatee member
“They are like everyone else,” Kumar added. “Just look at teenagers. Some are moody, some are straight up grouchy all the time. But the majority of us are nice people, and it’s the same with the homeless.”