The 10 high school students carried no illusions into a project to bring awareness to a major societal dilemma that defies solutions – homelessness.
Overcoming fear borne out of preconceived impressions, the youths learned a valuable lesson in humanity — one that will last a lifetime: The homeless are people, too, deserving of respect and dignity like everyone else. Nobody grows up aiming to be homeless.
The students understood they could not solve homelessness. But they could have an impact — primarily through their award-winning documentary film they produced last September and screened at the Sarasota Film Festival to a favorable reception. They titled their campaign, “Just Say Hello, Homeless are Humans, too.” All they want to communicate to the public is a simple but profound message: Being homeless doesn’t make anyone less human.
The youngsters simply approached the homeless and talked, asking questions, breaking bread and simply walking with them — even visiting homeless camps. The danger in that interaction, risking personal safety at the hands of an addict, the mentally ill or the overly aggressive, stops the general public from even looking at the homeless.
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As Jacob Huesman, a Braden River High senior, told Herald urban affairs reporter Mark Young: “It’s not fair to judge an entire population on what some members of the public experience with the homeless.” Indeed.
Manatee County’s homeless population is estimated to be 5,000 —1,800 of them children. While those figures define the size of the problem, Mother Teresa recommends a simple approach: “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”
All these months later, the students, from Braden River, Southeast and Lakewood Ranch high schools, continue to volunteer their time in several homeless programs – countless hours, an adult volunteer with their organization, the appropriately named Humans of Manatee County, told Young.
Their group is part of the international Future Problem Solvers, and this month their documentary took first place in the annual international competition in Michigan and earned a special “Beyonder” award as well – an honor that is not given annually. Their documentary also won in the Film Rush Manatee! student film competition this spring.
Deb Yaryura, an adult volunteer with Humans of Manatee, described the experience in … terms: “It’s been a huge eye-opener for the students and for me. The students started out in utter fear of the homeless and now are able to converse and treat them as human beings. The transformation has been amazing.”
Their student project complete — with honors, too — their newfound understanding is taking on a new mission, as Madelyn Kumar, a Southeast senior, told the Herald: “Encouraging the community to be more accepting of the homeless.”
Communities around the country are grappling with this issue. Perhaps the first step is that acceptance.
Cheers to the 10 students and their supporters. Their advocacy for the homeless should be an inspiration to us all. Together, the community should be able to improve the lot of many.