The Upper Schoolers diligently worked throughout the mini-gym, setting up cots, inflating air mattresses, making beds, arranging toiletries beside each one.
The space in Ridenhour Gymnasium is typically used for P.E. classes. The night before it held a student dance party — a celebration after successful CISAA championship basketball games. But this particular chilly Saturday night in January, it was a haven for 12 special guests.
Everything was ready by the time the PDS mini-bus — driven by English Department Chair Clint Crumley — pulled up outside, and the students lined up to greet their guests. And when they came in and looked around, the visitors’ eyes were wide with delight and appreciation.
“Wow, this is so, so nice. Thank you,” said one of the women, walking slowly with a cane toward the cots.
Such was the start of another night in Charger House, a temporary shelter providing warmth, comfort and food for homeless individuals during the cold winter months.
It was Crumley who proposed the idea of bringing Urban Ministry Center’s Room in the Inn program to PDS in 2008.
Each Room in the Inn site offers about a dozen homeless people per night hot meals and an evening of movies, fellowship and other activities. The host group recruits volunteers who spend the night with their guests, serve breakfast in the morning and then drive them back to uptown Charlotte in the morning.
PDS’s first participation was winter of 2009-10 and the endeavor is now part of the Upper School Students of Service (SOS) club, in which members commit themselves to a long-term project for an academic year to build ongoing relationships with a group, individual or cause within the greater Charlotte community.
While most sites host guests weekly, PDS’s participation is monthly between December and March. Over the years, Charger House has hosted approximately 300 individuals, about 50 this year alone.
According to Crumley, guests range from 20 to 70 years old. Some have jobs, many are actively searching. Some are former addicts. Some are chronically homeless. Since the gym’s second locker room was removed during renovations last year, guests have been exclusively female. One group included a mother and her 8-year-old daughter.
On a typical night, one group of students sets up the mini-gym while another prepares and brings the dinner. Then a “night shift” takes over — students along with parents and/or faculty spend the evening with the guests, who may relax, grab a shower, wash their clothes, play games or watch a DVD before lights out at 9 p.m.
The next morning, another group of volunteers brings breakfast and bag lunches, breaks down the shelter and takes home the laundry — sheets, pillowcases, etc.
The weekend in January, the guests left with gift bags of socks and blankets, compliments of Extended Day.
While the warm beds and food benefit the guests temporarily, it’s the interactions between them and the hosts that often are the most impactful long term.
“I sense … that our students’ cheerful optimism gives the guests hope,” said Crumley. “I’ve learned that lacking a place to call one’s own can do a lot of damage to one’s sense of self: simply being listened to and being called by name can mean a lot.”
“The students dine with them, listen to them, bond with them,” said Lower School teaching assistant Lula Daba, who has volunteered and helped with meals the last three years. “It’s a way for the women to forget their troubles, at least for a night.”
The conversations can be broad, lighthearted, meaningful, but always interesting.
“Topics range from a guest’s favorite subject in school to the Irish separatist movement,” said senior Amy DeCillis.
“Last time I met a former drug dealer, and it was obvious that profession did not work out for her,” said Amy. “I also have met a lot of sweet women who just seem to have gotten into the wrong situations.”
The guests sometimes share their personal stories, and offer advice in the form of “cautionary tales,” said Crumley.
The students “get a controlled dose of reality, a glimpse into how easy it can be to find oneself in an awful predicament,” he said. “But I also think they see ways in which some of these women are really admirable, really courageous and inspiring in refusing to see themselves as victims.”
Students often realize they have much in common with their guests.
“I talked with one lady about how we both have a lot of siblings and the importance of family, and it felt like we were old friends,” said Amy.
“I suppose it’s easy to initially think of all the woman as a single unfortunate entity,” said senior Grace Clements. “It’s tempting to say the classic, ‘I never knew how privileged I was until I got to spend time with these homeless people,’ but what I’ve really learned from Charger House is that each woman has the same claim to dignity and grace as anyone I know. Each woman has her individual personality and story.”
“I never feel like Charger House is community service or social justice work,” added Grace. “We’re there to keep some interesting women company.”
Part of Providence Day’s mission is to inspire in its students a “sense of social responsibility.”
Crumley became a teacher because he “enjoyed the intellectual give-and-take and energy of a campus,” but said his involvement with SOS “has been one of many ways in which I’ve learned to appreciate the work of helping adolescents move into an adulthood of character, of responsibility, of caring for others.”
While adults are obliged — as parents and teachers — to help the young become independent, Crumley said he felt “true adulthood also involves caring for others when needed.”
“I think Providence Day does a good job of not only encouraging students to be socially responsible, but also giving students an opportunity to actually act on that,” said Amy. “A lot of my peers are involved in different service projects, and I feel like that is largely due to Providence Day’s environment and the values the school tries to instill in us.”
When it comes to situations such as homelessness and poverty, the students are already contemplating ideas on how to make a difference.
“I think one of the best things young people can do is get involved in politics, to research how we can change the system that leaves so many people behind or even holds them down,” said Grace. “It’s our responsibility as social justice advocates to be informed voters in every election, making sure that the candidates we choose stand for the changes we’d like to see in policy.”
“I know the student body feels strongly about the role it plays as a steward to our community, and that’s apparent by the dedication my peers have to their clubs and SOS projects,” added Grace. “I’m happy to be a part of a considerate and passionate group of students.”
Ending homelessness is something that will take a long time, said Amy, “but a good place to start is education.”
“So few people can think outside the bubble that they live in,” she said. “I believe that once people understand the other side, action will follow. Ultimately, we should all help to raise awareness and promote programs like Charger House.”
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