She had to see before she could hear.
Alison Guernsey is a teacher in a K-8 school in which numbers of kids simply stopped coming to school, some for considerable lengths of time. Guernsey was saddened by the serial absences and the impact they had on her classroom and on the school. Not surprisingly, she felt she had failed, or the system had failed, or the world had failed; she was overwhelmed by a problem she could not conceptualize.
She was puzzled. Guernsey knew her students were happy at school; they had friendships that were disrupted by absence, and they missed significant special events. Their absence did not make sense. Finally, summoning her courage, Alison Guernsey went to her students’ homes to see if she could do anything to turn the situation around. She persisted in asking the same questions and listening carefully, sticking with her visits long enough to build trust with her kids and their parents.
She found out that the children she taught often had no clean clothes.
More than 90% of the children in the David Weir Preparatory Academy, in Fairflield, California, east of San Francisco, are on the free and reduced lunch programs. Parents described the choices they had to make on a monthly basis, all that had to be sacrificed in order to meet the rent or pay for medicine. Some reported that they had a washer and dryer, but their electricity had been turned off for weeks at a time. Guernsey knew that she saw disadvantaged children every day, but saw more as she asked and asked again. Many of the children were transient, living in motels week to week; others lived in cars. Parents did the wash when they could, but were embarrassed to send a child to school in dirty clothing, and children were mortified to be seen in dirty clothing.
Rather than throw up her hands in frustration, Guernsey returned to her school and installed a washing machine and dryer; she provided detergent, laundry bags, and fabric softener. Children who had missed many school days were told their clothes would be washed while they were in class. Volunteers arrived every day to help do the laundry. Alison Guernsey’s hope was that this initiative might help attendance a bit; in the first month, attendance was up by 90%.
The success of the program brought the interest of Whirlpool, which now supports a program called Care Counts, providing washers and dryers to schools. In the first year, Whirlpool assisted seventeen schools in two districts, hiking their attendance by 93%; the program is expanding to meet the needs of schools in other regions.
Alison Guernsey’s story is inspiring, and Whirlpool’s sponsorship is encouraging, but what struck me as most important about the story was that Alison Guernsey was willing to listen. She is a remarkable teacher, fully invested in the lives of the children she teaches, and she stepped into those lives. She put aside her disappointment and frustration, and sat with parents who had never been asked what their children were going through.
Asking matters. Listening matters. Most of us are told what we need, what we think, what we should do. We are rarely asked … anything. Those of us sitting at a table using a computer are the lucky ones; if we live our lives feeling unseen, imagine the lives of those we cannot see.
Alison Guernsey asked and listened, but first she had to see, and she saw what most of don’t.
Homeless people are the fastest growing demographic in this country. Almost fifty million people in the U.S. live below the poverty level, although it is difficult to collect accurate statistics on a population in motion and unlikely to appear in an ordinary head count. One child in five lives below the poverty line. Estimates put the number of homeless children at about three million, again recognizing that figures are as unstable as the population. In addition to those homeless in the company of a parent or relative, twenty-five percent of children in foster care end up homeless. Almost half of the homeless population is under the age of eighteen. In addition, sixteen million children live in situations in which access to food is precarious. Just to up the stakes a bit, in some studies it has been found that homeless children experience developmental delay and suffer from depression and anxiety.
So, when teachers, people, like Alison Guernsey step out of the sheltered world, look hard at the children they meet, ask authentic questions, and listen, they help us see children who need help.
The rest is up to us.