For the past two weeks, our students have been learning about poverty in Rowan County. Poverty is a significant challenge for many of our students in Rowan-Salisbury Schools. While individuals living in poverty can definitely change their circumstances, living in poverty can be challenging for many. Often poverty presents itself as hungry students in our classroom, high rates of absenteeism, and underachievement for students. North Rowan High has a high percentage of lower socioeconomic students. The school offers free breakfast to all students as a result of a this higher percentage of students qualifying for free/reduced lunch. The challenge of poverty is something that our society continues to grapple with and finding solutions to end it are very challenging. Often, students living in poverty are part of an on-going cycle where many of their parents and even grandparents grew up in similar circumstances. I am so proud of our students for choosing this topic to study especially given that it hits really close to home for many of them.
This past week, our students heard from the executive director of the Meals on Wheels for Rowan County who shared a lot of information about poverty in Rowan County. Rowan County continues to see increased rates of poverty compared to surrounding counties. Further, there is a challenge with finding affordable housing in Rowan County, even with support, for many families. Our students also heard from the homeless student liasion who shared that last year, Rowan-Salisbury Schools have over 300 identified students who were classified as homeless as defined by the McKinney-Vento act passed by congress in the late 1980s. She reminded us that these 300 students were only the one that had been identified and that most likely the value is higher. Students learned about the services that Rowan-Salisbury Schools provide for students as well as their families.
Hearing from expert speakers such as these was amazing. But our students experienced an even more extraordinary experience when they visited Rowan Helping Ministries. Rowan Helping Ministries is our county's local homeless shelter and crisis assistance center. The organization does amazing work to support many individuals living in poverty in our county. While there, our students heard from Wayne. Wayne, originally from New Jersey, moved to North Carolina to change his life. He has previously been in prison for drugs and other crimes. He grew up on the "streets of Camden" as he put it. One day while in prison, he decided to change his life and moved to North Carolina where he could start new. He eventually ended up living in the homeless shelter in Salisbury. While there, Rowan Helping Ministries provided him with support to change his life's trajectory. At the time, a new facility was being built for Rowan Helping Ministries and he walked across the street to speak with the project supervisor for the construction company. After sharing his story, Wayne told the supervisor that he really wanted a chance to prove himself and change his life. So the supervisor sent him to the temp agency where he was hired. Wayne showed up early to work and did everything that he could to prove that he was a valuable worker. He often beat the supervisor to work. He never complained about the job that he was doing and rose quickly to be a valuable employee. After the project was complete, he took a position as a full time staff member with Rowan Helping Ministries. He is living proof that anyone who wants to change their trajectory can but they must be fully committed to that change. He spoke at length with our students and really emphasized the importance of focusing on their goals and finishing high school.
In addition to hearing Wayne's inspiration story, our students had the opportunity to volunteer and serve in different capacities at Rowan Helping Ministries. Most of the students had never visited the facility, let alone, serve others. Many of them helped pack bags of food for students to take home on the weekend. These are students who may not have anything literally to eat over the weekend. Several of our students remarked that they did not realize we had people living in our community who would have not food over the weekend. They also helped pack and distribute food for families who would not have enough food for the entire month. Again, many students shared that they did not realize that we had families living in our communities that they did not have enough food. Several students who helped sort and fold donated clothes that would be used for needy families. With each service performed, our students seemed to become aware of the needs of individuals living in our communities. Many students remarked that their favorite thing about the trip was serving others. I had several students share with me that they never realized how much of a difference they could make. After returning back to campus, many students asked about going back to serve again at Rowan Helping Ministries. We are coordinating to make this reality again. Interestingly enough, many said that they want to help on their own time as well. I was really astonished by this as some of these students had not shown a lot of interest previously in our topic. It seemed that learning through serving others helped to connect many of our students to our topic in a way that simply just sitting in a classroom could not. The students had experienced many of the faces of poverty and served in helping others.
As a I reflect on this experience for our students, the students were able to connect to our topic in a way that will impact their life for many years. I potentially can see them thinking about the experience of the trip and what they learned that day for years to come. I can see them sharing the story of what they learned during this trip with their own kids and grand kids. Further, I envison them becoming more empowered individuals who now know that they can make positive changes in their community through serving others. Here are a few things that our students shared about their experiences:
As I consider what the students learn, I am so pleased that we were able to provide them with an opportunity in which they learned so much more that they can apply to changing either the quality of their own life or the quality of another person's life by serving others because in the end, isn't this really what matters? I am excited to see how their final challenges will turn out this week. Our students learned more valuable lessons through serving that I ever could have taught them by simply staying in the classroom.
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.