CCSC Students lead “Empathy Project”

Photo: Cynthia Abatt

For the past four months, I’ve had the privilege of supervising two senior interns from the Community Charter School of Cambridge. Yusef Ferhani and Christy Felix have joined me each Wednesday to figure out practical ways to involve millennials in becoming part of the solution for America’s homelessness problem.

Athletic, bright, attractive and comfortable within their skins, both Yusef and Christy have bright futures ahead as they head to Stanford and Cornell next August. “Character” is an old-fashioned term that talking heads use to signify what kind of person you are. Strong character includes a solid work ethic, loyalty to others and telling the truth. Both Yusef and Christy impressed me early on as the sort of kids who have strong character and who were likely to enjoy great success in the years to come.

Yet my lasting memory of both Yusef and Christy will not be how impressive they are as they rack up personal successes (even as I have no doubt this will be the case). I will remember them with hope and a smile because the people they are convinces me that the millennial generation is made up of more than just selfie-taking, self-indulgent whiners. This young man and young woman are deeply empathetic and concerned about helping peers understand that not everyone has the same chances that they have been given.

On Saturday May 7, their “Empathy Project” resulted in dozens of Boston-area high schoolers experiencing what it means to be a Spare Change vendor. They outfitted their peers in Spare Change hats and aprons and sent them out to sell papers with the goal of giving them the first-hand experience of what it felt like to rely on donations (not panhandle) as a way of earning a living. At the debrief session after the experience, a common theme emerged: It’s not easy to be a vendor.

Some individuals responded by ignoring the students. Others were outright scornful and said things like: “I won’t buy your paper. Ask your president!” But a small minority responded with encouragement and kindness, including a business owner in Inman Square who bought 21 copies of the paper for his son to share with classmates.

The students talked about how being told “no” or being outright ignored made them feel sad inside. Everyone seemed to agree that selling Spare Change was a lot more challenging than it looked. Yusef and Christy’s “Empathy Project” achieved its stated goal of opening the eyes of their peers to some of the challenges Boston’s economically disadvantaged face as they seek to create a better life for themselves.

Poverty is a complicated burden to bear. Material discomforts and dangers are what most people associate with being homelessness. Yet there are invisible wounds to the spirit that occur as well. In a society that associates wealth with virtue, it’s easy to reach the false conclusion that those who are homeless are homeless due to some sort of personal failing.

Let’s be honest. All people fail. We’ve all made bad decisions at one point or another and have suffered varying degrees of consequences. So much of homelessness is related to whether someone has a support system to fall back on when they experience repeated setbacks and/or make choices that have dire consequences (such as recreational use of opiates or alcohol that leads to addiction).

Yusef shared with me that one of his favorite parts of his internship was a visit to a kindergarten classroom at Buckingham, Brown and Nichols to give a presentation about homelessness. He participated in a skit where six kindergarten students with different hardships (such as “car accident” and “job loss”) taped to their chests climbed on him as he tried to stand up. When just a few climbed on him, he was able to get back on his feet. When all six climbed on top of him, he was unable to stand up.

Christy led an exercise with fourth grade students to teach them about privilege and how circumstances of birth/social class often have a great deal to do with whether a person succeeds or fails at a given task. This involved giving each child a wad of paper to toss into a trashcan, no matter where they were in the room. Predictably, paper flew everywhere, sometimes right into the person in front of the tosser. Only a few wads “successfully” made it into the trashcan.

The giggles that accompanied watching a three-sport athlete be taken down by kindergartners allowed Yusef to connect with children whose hearts were open and compassionate toward the homeless, due in no small part to the wonderful classroom environment created by BB&N’s faculty and staff.

Christy’s exercise gave fourth graders a chance to understand that sometimes success has less to do with skill than what obstacles are (or aren’t) in your path.

The students responded to Yusef and Christy’s presentations by making lunch for Spare Change vendors that they delivered to our offices at 1151 Massachusetts Ave. during our Friday vendor meeting. The vendors were delighted by the hand-delivered, carefully packed lunches, which included individual drawings and words of encouragement.

The basement of Old Cambridge Baptist church was full to the brim with children and the vendors who were direct recipients of their kindness. Yusef and Christy planted important seeds in the hearts of these children, which resulted in a joyful moment for all participating parties.

It will be bittersweet to say goodbye to Yusef and Christy, even as I am tremendously excited to see them mature alongside a generation that needs empathetic leaders to solve the many challenges our world faces in years to come. Stanford and Cornell inherit two very special individuals who have spent their spring making Cambridge a better place.

Thank you, Yusef and Christy! It has been a privilege to have you as members of the Spare Change News family. You will be missed.

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