The Youth Engagement Zone at Banana Kelly:Serving Homeless People in Philadelphia
By Stephanie Gilman, Program Manager
buildOn’s Youth Engagement Zone just finished its 4-week summer program, a series of service projects that got students out of their homes and interacting with the Bronx neighborhood through the month of July. Previously on the blog, we discussed the YEZ’s trip to the James Monroe Housing Development with local Assembly Member Marcos Crespo and their efforts to spread awareness of urban violence prevention methods. On August 4th, students ventured even further out of the bubble of summer leisure and met at Times Square at 7am to ride a Greyhound Bus into Philadelphia to volunteer at a homeless shelter.
[pullquote]We wanted to show the students the similarities between inner-city environments in different locations; to illustrate how the problem of homelessness extends beyond the Bronx.[/pullquote]
We wanted to show the students the similarities between inner-city environments in different locations; to illustrate how the problem of homelessness extends beyond the Bronx. We set up a service project with the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, an organization that runs a temporary shelter and transitional housing for homeless men, as well as a soup kitchen for all that serves three meals a day. After we arrived on the bus, the students were given a tour of the facilities by the community outreach director, who provided a brief history of the organization and an explanation of why their approach helps homeless people.
The director led us upstairs through the soup kitchen to the dorms that act as emergency housing. Student Andira Rodriguez was particularly impressed by the set-up. “I had never been in a shelter or a soup kitchen before,” she said later. “It really opened my eyes to see how a shelter was run – to see the bunk beds where the men sleep. I felt like the whole concept of a soup kitchen with a shelter was really good, because it gives the men the option to sleep there.”
After this, the students volunteered in the pantry, sorting cans in an assembly line. The director was impressed at how quickly they were able to organize themselves, and I was proud that the students could interact so intimately after 4 weeks of service together. I explained to the director that the students really take the lead; I often find myself following their instincts.
[pullquote]The men were surprised to see young people helping them out, I think. You usually don’t see young people helping anyone.[/pullquote]
We volunteered through lunch, which served about 80 people. The students acted as soup kitchen waiters of sorts, placing food on trays and carrying it out to any arriving for mealtime. “The people we served were nice,” reflect student Sirley Lopez. “They were kind of surprised that we came all the way from New York to serve them food.”
Rodriguez added: “I was expecting the men to be more stand-offish when we brought the food out, like questioning why we were there. But they were so nice and thankful. And they were calling me ‘sister’ and asking me where I’m from.”
In addition to learning that homelessness is a universal affliction, the students afterward seemed to be thinking most about the impact of their own involvement as teenagers–the fact that they’d traveled so far to do a little bit of good at their age. “The men were surprised to see young people helping them out, I think,” mentioned Shabany Pereyra. “You usually don’t see young people helping anyone.”
But the students consider that other young people may not help because they don’t know how, or don’t think they’ll get anything out of the experience. buildOn, and the YEZ, is one way of exposing teens to what it feels like to make a difference. “I like helping people,” says Rodriguez. “Coming all the way over here to do that makes me happy.”