See how these students help Boone's homeless

Posted at 8:00 AM, May 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-24 08:00:10-04

BURLINGTON, Ky. — Homelessness: It might not be something that comes to mind when you think about Boone County, but that is changing.

A group of young advocates at Camp Ernst Middle School set out this school year to create awareness about the mostly rural county’s growing homeless population. Their work has started a conversation. And the eighth-graders hope the culmination of their student-led project – an actual mini dwelling – will keep people talking. 

To explain how a class of junior high students came to surprise everyone, including themselves, by designing and constructing their own tiny house, you have to start at the beginning of their journey. It starts earlier this year with “Northern Kentucky Homeless Project,” a project-based learning, language arts project that challenged them to answer a single question. 

“How can we help the problem of homelessness in Northern Kentucky?”

During their first day of research, the kids quickly realized the simple question required a complex answer, according to language arts teacher Amanda Girvin.

From left, Camp Ernst Middle School eighth-graders Gracie Good, Adelaide Thomas and Hailey Johnson with their teacher Amanda Girvin. The group is looking over new materials for their tiny house. (Sarah Hardee)

“They learned there are about 500 students just in Boone County Schools who are considered homeless,” said Girvin, who leads the project. “It struck a chord with them. They basically said, 'This is not OK with us.’” 

Statistics on the homeless population in Northern Kentucky are surprising, said eighth-grader Hailey Johnson. For the kids, it was a call to action.

First, the students set out to learn all they could about local homelessness and ongoing efforts to combat the problem. They researched the topic online, she said, and invited Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky Executive Director Kim Webb to their classroom to speak about the shelter.

“They were excited to learn about our mission,” said Webb, whose twins attend sixth grade at Camp Ernst. “They wanted to know what they could do to help make a difference.”

The students decided to focus on two things. They wanted to connect more homeless people with basic need resources, but they also wanted to help spread awareness about the problem. 

The group got a little creative, Hailey said. The students reached out for help and raised funds for the shelter. They collected items, including bottled water, towels and blankets, and started putting together backpacks full of supplies for the homeless. But they also created a public awareness campaign and even reached out to local media.

“We felt like it was really important to bring awareness to the problem,” Hailey said. “To make a big difference, we need to get the community involved.”

During their research, the students learned the facts. Local nonprofits, like Welcome House of Northern Kentucky and the emergency shelter, are providing resources to the homeless but they need more support.

For example, they learned it takes about $17 to provide housing for a homeless person for a night at the emergency shelter. When it's busy during winter, the shelter can house more than 100 people in a single night. And those 100 spots don’t come close to matching up with the number of people who are homeless in Northern Kentucky.

That led them to start researching more permanent solutions to homelessness. The kids were introduced online to the work of California-based artist Gregory Kloehn, who uses salvaged materials to create mobile, tiny houses for the homeless in his community. 

They were immediately inspired by his work, said eighth-grader Adelaide Thomas.

“We looked at the tiny houses he was creating and wanted to do something similar,” she said. But there were roadblocks, and the kids were left with a lot of questions, she admits. 

Who would want to live in their tiny house? Perhaps more importantly, where would they put it? And would they encounter “not in my backyard” opposition from residents?

“It was a great learning experience, because the students had to look at the issue from all sides,” Girvin said. “Homelessness is a difficult problem to solve.”

The group decided to go ahead with their plans and will use the tiny house as part of the project’s awareness campaign. They connected with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teacher at Camp Ernst and were able to design and create a 3D model of their small, 8-by-5-foot structure on the computer. Girvin purchased all the materials, and the kids are getting their hands dirty.

They have been working overtime (after school) to complete the project by their last day of middle school on Wednesday.

“It’s great to see everything coming together,” eighth-grader Gracie Good said.

As part of the project, the group has made cardboard signs with statistics about local homelessness that will adorn the tiny house. Once it’s complete, it will be on display at the Boone County Public Library’s main branch in Burlington. 

From left, Camp Ernst Middle School eighth-graders Hailey Johnson, Gracie Good and Adelaide Thomas with cardboard signs that will be displayed with the students' tiny house. (Sarah Hardee)

After that, they hope to donate it to the emergency shelter, Gracie said. The kids hope it will be used during fundraisers and other events to help shed light on the complex problem of local homelessness.

The group’s dedication to the project has already got people in the community talking, according to Webb. That’s a good strategy when trying to help tackle homelessness in a largely rural area.

“The homeless population is not visible in rural counties, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. These kids are challenging people to rethink homelessness: It’s not just the people you see living on the street,” she said. “They’re very passionate about what they’re doing, and inspiring students and adults to think big when it comes to helping others.”

The scope of the project has even surprised Girvin.

“With all they learned, they just couldn’t be silent,” she said. “This project is from their heart.”

Want to learn more?

Project-based Learning (PBL) is a teaching method that allows students to investigate and respond to complex, real-world problems through extensive, student-led projects that combine multiple academic disciplines. Camp Ernst Middle School uses PBL throughout the year and also coordinates service-based learning projects. For details on projects that were completed during the 2015-16 school year, click here

The school’s Northern Kentucky Homeless Project stemmed from an “everyday hero” lesson where students were asked to explore ways to recognize everyday people making a difference.

Another group of Amanda Girvin’s language arts students petitioned Boone County Fiscal Court to officially designate May 25 as “Hero Day.” A proclamation this month made it official in the county. The class will honor a special “everyday hero” at Camp Ernst on Wednesday.