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Homework Grows Into Projects to Help the Area's Homeless : Fourth- and fifth-graders at Eastshore Elementary in Irvine turn awareness into social action.


IRVINE — Until four months ago, 11-year-old Joey Rubin didn't know there were homeless people in Orange County. "I thought that was only in big cities," Joey says.

Jessica Green, 11,, was surprised to discover that some of the county's homeless were children like herself.

And Jeff Clywik, also 11, had never met a homeless person. Now he knows a man who is living in a car. "He looked like everyone else," Jeff says.

Today, after completing a study project on homelessness, Joey, Jessica and Jeff--and the rest of their fourth- and fifth-grade classmates at Eastshore Elementary School--are experts on the subject.

They can rattle off statistics that would make your head spin. But the statistic that bothers these kids most is the Orange County Homeless Issues Task Force estimate that about 5,000 of the county's estimated 10,000 to 12,000 homeless are children.

Discovering that there were so many homeless kids in Orange County shocked the Eastshore children, most of whom come from comfortable middle-class homes.

"They gathered a lot of facts, contacted all the shelters, but were struck most by the children," says Kathie Nielsen, who along with Karen Rhoads teaches Eastshore's combined fourth and fifth grade accelerated class.

Because of a desire to help the county's homeless, the Eastshore children have turned what began as a modest class assignment into "something big, really big," Nielsen says. The children have raised money, written letters, made phone calls, given speeches and appeared before the Irvine City Council.

"Now even the mayor returns their phone calls," Nielsen says.

The Irvine school kids wanted to stage a telethon to call attention to the plight of the homeless, but when that seemed impractical, they settled for a 40-minute show that will be videotaped and shown later on the local cable channel.

The production, called "Home Sweet Home" will be staged at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the school at 155 Eastshore Drive and is open to the public. The show will include original essays and poems written by the children, as well as an adaptation of a children's book called "Home Place."

"I knew they would do something great," Nielsen says. "Kids have that in them if you can direct it."

But Nielsen admits the project has far exceeded her expectations. For example, two weeks ago, they mailed 150 letters soliciting money and gifts so that they could put together "birthday boxes" for homeless children. Already, they've received $800 in cash, two tickets to Disneyland, coupons for movies and food and two cartons of diapers.

The children will use the gifts and money to make up birthday boxes that will include toys and other items for homeless kids.

Working on the project has changed how the youngsters view the world, Rhoads says. "One day when it was raining, one boy said, 'This would really be a bad day to be a homeless person out there.' "

Mark Zabezhinsky, 11, says that before he began his research he thought the homeless were lazy and unwilling to work. "I've found out that is not true," he says.

Kelly Schrader, 11, says she has learned that "the homeless are just like us."

And Elise Law, 10, says she feels sorry for the homeless. "They haven't done anything wrong," she says.

Most pupils say the project has made them more appreciative of their own homes. "I went home and I was thinking, 'I have my own room,' " says Alissa Heideman, 10. "And when my sister was going to throw some things away, I said maybe we could put them in a box and give them to others."

And 11-year-old Christine Huang says: "I feel like I can really make a difference."

Showing children how to make a difference in the world was the idea behind the assignment, Nielsen says.

"We had never done a social action project before," she says. "But last year we went to a workshop, and that was one of the topics." The workshop leader recommended a book called "The Kid's Guide to Social Action" by Barbara A. Lewis (Free Spirit Publishing, $14.95). Nielsen and Rhoads bought the book and used it to put together their classroom project.

"We asked the kids what they wanted to work on," Nielsen says, "and they decided to focus on the homeless."

Except for the price of the book, the two teachers say the project costs nothing, but yields many dividends in the classroom. "They are using the academic skills we teach in the class everyday, but using them on something that is real," Nielsen says. "Business letters have never been so easy to teach--because it's all real."

In addition to writing the 150 letters, the children also were required to write and present a speech about homelessness to other classes in the school. "They also had to write the speeches they gave to the city council," Rhoads says.

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