It was just after 1 p.m. on Friday. As we entered the gymnasium of P.S. 142, I caught myself uneasily looking around for him. The gym was still empty, save one school janitor who had been assigned to help us with set-up.
It was still too early.
Just before 2p.m. our team of parent and faculty volunteers finally finished lining up the mounds of overflowing gift sacks. Each year our school hosts a charitable outreach project, MSM Shares, providing holiday gifts, warm winter clothing, and a pizza party for the more than 50 students of P.S. 142, who are living in homeless shelters on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
We were ready. The only thing left to do was wait.
At long last, the clock struck 3 p.m. Children of all ages, some accompanied by older siblings or parents, began filing excitedly into the gym. The basketball courts filled with holiday cheer and socioeconomic differences faded into the bleachers as committee members and family members warmly greeted one another. The scent of piping-hot pizza soon accompanied the buzz already permeating the room as everyone sat down together.
I was still looking for Jarel*.
The minutes dragged. At just before 3:30 p.m. the Principal of P.S. 142 joined the celebration. Tearful with gratitude that we had once again come through with the only holiday gifts that these children would see this season, she embraced each project volunteer with glad tidings. I momentarily caught her eye and mouthed his name, punctuated by a wordless question mark. She scanned the crowd and shrugged across the room in reply.
It was now 3:45 p.m. Our committee Chair, Jenny, stepped to the microphone to begin announcing the names of each overjoyed child. Though I stood with the other volunteers, my eyes stayed trained nervously on the door. I was certain I had seen his name on the list again this year. Yes, I was definitely certain. Or could I be confusing it with last year?
Every December, while the children of P.S. 142 are racing up to receive their gift bags, the principal would pull me aside and, one-principal-to-another, share some of their stories. Each seemed more heartbreaking than the next. Many of these children live in the shelters with three, four, or even five siblings. Many have no parents and all have seen and experienced unspeakable things. Over these many years, one story stood out. It was that of an eight-year-old boy. Upon receiving his very first gift bag, he thanked the volunteers wholeheartedly and asked if he might be allowed to have another bag of clothing and toys, should there be any extras. I was curious why, as he had specifically asked for smaller clothes or toys for a much younger child. The principal pointed out to me that he was alone at the party, as he always was. She shared with me that he lived in a shelter with his entire family who, in her words, wanted “absolutely nothing to do with him.” Despite being shunned by his parents and siblings, he maintained a cheerful attitude, got good grades, and worked hard to keep himself on the straight-and-narrow. At school events, such as their annual Thanksgiving dinner or our holiday pizza party, he would remain behind to pack up any extra food, clothing, or toys to take back to his family in the shelter.
The same family who didn’t want him.
Estimating the homeless population is difficult and according to Child Trends Databank, 2015, over 1.4 million students in the U.S. were homeless at the start of last school year. Children not enrolled in school, although their numbers are less easily measured, push that total number of homeless children and youth significantly higher.
In classrooms across America teachers, administrators, and service providers are confronted with the ever-growing number of children who lack a stable home, making them vulnerable to an unusual number of adverse outcomes. Some threats, such as poverty and hunger, may precede episodes of homelessness. Other threats follow, such as the much greater likelihood of adolescent drug abuse, early sexual involvement, and increased likelihood of participation in criminal activity. Homeless children are more likely than other children to have moderate to severe acute and chronic health problems, and less access to medical and dental care.
As the bell rings each morning, another acute reality faced by the staff of P.S. 142 and educators just like them throughout the U.S., is that sheltered homeless children are disproportionately young. In 2014, more than 10 percent of homeless children who spent time in shelters were under the age of one, 39 percent between one and five, 33 percent between six and twelve, and 18 percent between 13 and 17. Children born into the shelter system in the United States have the greatest likelihood of becoming or remaining homeless as adults. In the words of one Kindergarten teacher: “They are little, they are tired, and they are hungry, yet I still have to find a way to reach them. If I don’t, no one will and we will see them all back here in ten years with kids of their own.”
It was now 4:15 p.m. Seeking distraction, I busied myself with the task of unnecessarily arranging the few remaining gift sacks.
At 4:20 p.m. I rearranged said sacks.
Then, finally, it happened. At precisely 4:30 p.m. relief washed over me and the other volunteers who knew his story, as Jarel’s beaming face emerged through the gymnasium doorway. He had been delayed coming to the party because he was attending an after-school program.
Of course he was.
As I watched him graciously collect his gift sack (along with all the extras we had set aside) our own MSM school motto ran through my mind: “Teachers guide. Children lead.” I am the Head of our school, and right in front of me was a young man who, despite his difficult family situation, despite his circumstances, was teaching me a lesson in how to be a better one. Now eleven-years-old, Jarel is still in school, still getting good grades, and he is still smiling. He was alone at the party again this year, but for now that will have to be OK.
Jarel showed up and for all of us, that means there is hope.
*name has been changed