Roughly Speaking Dan Rodricks: Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Dan Rodricks: A backpack of joy for homeless children

Sometimes the littlest things lead to big things: Someone smiles, or nods at a certain angle, and love blooms. Someone says something incidental, even ordinary, but it inspires others to act in bold, generous and courageous ways. The smallest gesture can leave a large impression.

So it was when Christian Wilson happened to see a boy, eight or nine years old, take a couple of bites from a sandwich and hand the rest to his mother. It was during a federally funded summer lunch program for children at a Catholic church in North Baltimore. Wilson heard the boy say, “I’m full,” and insist that his mother take the rest.

The boy and his mother were homeless and hungry.

That moment, lasting just seconds, got under Wilson’s skin, and it’s still there. It explains why, several years later, he and his wife, Pamela, run a small nonprofit out of their Charles Village rowhouse to provide food for homeless children and their families each weekend during the school year.

The Wilsons were shocked to learn that hundreds of Baltimore’s public school students are homeless — their parents or guardians have no permanent home; they sleep in shelters or on the street, or in a car or van, or at the home of a relative or friend. The Wilsons learned that one elementary school has as many as 50 homeless kids.

City school officials last year counted 3,000 students who were homeless. The new academic year started with 2,000.

“Unfortunately, we expect the number to go higher,” says Edie House-Foster, the school system spokeswoman. “Last year’s number was higher than the year before.”

The Baltimore County public schools started the year with 2,108 homeless students, according to Dolores Pierorazio, the spokeswoman for that system.

These numbers represent the level of poverty in the city and surrounding county, the lack of affordable housing in both, and the degree to which we tolerate a condition that should not be tolerated. More than anything, those numbers represent kids who happen to have been born into poverty, or into families that experienced a crisis. These kids feel a level of stress and uncertainty most of us have never felt — and, it’s fair to assume, pangs of hunger most of us have never known.

They might get free meals at school, but schools are closed on the weekends. So the kids go without food, or with very little food, between Friday and Monday.

And their parents and siblings are no better off. They might get to a soup kitchen on the weekend, but, with or without children, that whole experience can be tenuous and logistically challenging.

So that’s where the Wilsons chose to channel their ambitions to make a little difference in this world. They established Heart’s Place Services to provide backpacks of food — “weekend survival kits” — that homeless children pick up on Friday and take to their families.

Each week, staff and volunteers at six elementary schools stuff about $20 worth of non-perishable items — cereal, canned fruit, sausage and ham; peanut butter and jelly; “shelf-stable” milk and juice; granola bars and crackers; paper plates, napkins and plastic utensils — into red cloth backpacks.

“There’s also a loaf of bread,” says Christian Wilson. “There’s enough food to feed a family of three for two days. There’s nothing in the backpack that requires heating or refrigeration.”

In a partnership with the Maryland Food Bank, the Wilsons have seen their program grow from a few dozen kids to 110.

“But it’s just 110,” says Christian Wilson.

“This program really needs to grow,” says Pamela Wilson.

The couple moved to Baltimore 18 years ago and are now retired from long careers in the maritime insurance trade. They seem as savvy and as organized as you’d expect experienced business owners to be. They operate Heart’s Place from the basement of their rowhouse — with some spillover in the dining room and front hallway — and they volunteer all of their time. They have personally funded a lot of weekend backpacks.

The Wilsons say they have appealed to both City Hall and the State House for help with funding an expansion of the program, but have received more backslaps than greenbacks. So far their biggest funders have been private — the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds, the Ober Kaler law firm, the Kiwanis Club of Baltimore City — with smaller contributions from churches and individuals.

Prospective donors want to see results, so last spring the Wilsons surveyed the principals of the schools they serve. Each one reported positive returns: All students who received backpacks showed improved attendance, with fewer sick days. Nearly all had improved their grades. Nearly all made fewer trips to detention. Monday moods were generally better. And one principal reported an “increase in joy.”

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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