It started with a book that Sutton Sauer was using in her English class at Triad Middle School.
In the book, “Maniac Magee” by Jerry Spinelli, the main character, Jeffrey “Maniac” Magee is orphaned and chooses to be homeless rather than live with loveless adopted parents. The novel chronicles his struggles to find acceptance, a home and family in a town that is racially divided.
The story teaches kids a lesson that cannot be reinforced too often: our preconceived notions frequently turn out to be wrong.
“Kids typically have the misconception that homeless people are elderly, unkempt, alcoholic males. Through reading, our sixth-graders learn the effects of homelessness on families, and children, in particular. Their stereotypes are blown away,” said Sauer, who lives in Shiloh.
The lesson had a profound impact, more so than Sauer ever thought it would. Once that first class had completed the unit, her students posed a question she wasn’t expecting: “What can we do to help?” they asked.
“At that time, I had been teaching for 29 years, and no class had ever posed that question,” Sauer said. “So, I said, ‘I don’t know.’ But I always hated it when my teachers highlighted a problem and then had no answer to that very question: What can kids do?”
So she put the word out that she had kids wanting to make a difference. But she encountered an unexpected road block. Most places and organizations were thrilled to hear of her students’ offer to volunteer to help those in need, until she told them that they were between the ages of 11 and 12.
“The general population tends to view middle-schoolers as unruly adolescents without drive or vision. These students prove that incorrect. On the spot, I promised to do some research and get back to them. Boy, was that the beginning of a journey,” Sutton said.
That’s when Sauer’s husband Dale, the superintendent of Shiloh School District 85, told her about a guest speaker, Christy Gilliland, who had addressed one of his Rotary Club meetings to talk about her organization, Kids Showing Kindness.
“Christy had found the same roadblocks to her efforts to have her children be involved in volunteerism within the metro-east area. Dale put the two of us together, (and she) put me together with St. Matthew’s,” she said.
On the third Saturday of each month, members of St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Belleville prepare and serve a free meal to any who wish to come. Many are homeless.
“The kids are the wait staff and clean up crew for the dinner. They see the folks that come through are not the elderly, alcoholic, male stereotypes that they originally envisioned. The kids see families, singles, all races, religions, abilities, all ages,” Sutton said.
That first class was three years ago. Her latest class just finished up this year’s tour.
Greyson Rockwell said he didn’t know what to expect his class first went to the church. What he learned was a real-life lesson that reinforced what he had read about in the classroom.
“I was nervous about it, and I was surprised that that many people were homeless, and it showed me that I can get stuff like electricity and drinking water, and they can’t. So they have a much harder life,” he said.
“I like that it made me think of things I wouldn’t normally think of,” said his classmate, Tristan Darby. “They look like people you would see on the street, walking by just like us.”
The students worked every month, January through April.
“It opened my eyes to a lot of stuff,” said Jacob Stewart, another in the latest group of Sauer’s sixth-graders to participate in the program at St. Matthew. “There were a bunch of people that, if you looked at them, you couldn’t even tell that they were homeless. I even saw a baby and other kids, too, and people using wheelchairs and crutches.”
“I was a little nervous, because I didn’t know what it was going to be like, and I’d never been around that type of people, and I had never done that kind of thing, but it was good,” said Emily Yarborough, another student volunteer.
“I thought it was fun helping those people, and it was kind of cool how like we got the experience of serving people,” said fellow sixth-grader Bailey Moore.
Sauer said the diners and staff of St. Matthew appreciate the energy and enthusiasm of her middle-schoolers. And she knows they are learning things they will never forget.
“I see facets of my students that aren’t visible in the classroom on a day-to-day basis. Essentially, we all learn, and it’s a beautiful thing,” she said.