Carlow Students Reach Pittsburgh's Youngest Homeless Through Service-Learning

Alison D'Addieco, Photos by Tori Hirsh - December 19, 2013

During the 2012-2013 school year, more than 2,000 children ages birth through grade 12 experienced homelessness in Allegheny County.

These figures, compiled by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's (AIU) Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness Program (ECYEH), go beyond children living in shelters. They include children who are doubled-up with others, who live in hotels/motels or cars, or who reside in homes without adequate utilities or that are not appropriate for human habitation.

Through a new service-learning course, Carlow University is reaching out to these children, helping them thrive, no matter their circumstances.

This fall, in conjunction with the AIU, Carlow introduced Professional Communities of Practice, providing service to the community and equipping future educators with skills and perspective.

Carlow Students Reach Pittsburgh's Youngest Homeless 1
One of the preschool age children at the Carlow-led community services fair at Wilkinsburg's Hosanna House, December 4, 2013. 

Rae Ann Hirsh, director of undergraduate early childhood education at Carlow, teamed with the ECYEH's Sarah Aglio, community liaison for Together Time, to offer a unique, eye-opening experience that brought students directly into area homeless shelters.

Pairs of students were placed in four shelters: Sojourner House, a drug and alcohol rehabilitative facility in East Liberty; Sister's Place, scattered apartment transitional and permanent housing in Clairton; Women's Space East, emergency shelter and transitional housing in Pittsburgh's Uptown neighborhood; and Healthy Start House, transitional housing in Duquesne.

The students worked with children and their parents by implementing the ECYEH's Together Time curriculum, a program developed through the AIU's partnership with the Fred Rogers Company.

Carlow Students Reach Pittsburgh's Youngest Homeless 2
Carlow education student Bethany Scheboth, also a volunteer fire fighter for West Deer Station #3, taught preschoolers about fire safety during the fair. She is pictured here working on a craft project with the children.

Designed specifically for young children experiencing homelessness, Together Time offers families a special time to play and interact, gives parents techniques and ideas for everyday learning, encourages the development of skills that children will need to succeed in school, and strengthens the relationship between parents and their children while they enjoy time together. 

To date, Carlow is the only Pittsburgh-area university involved with Together Time.

Ashley Blair, a senior early childhood education major from Pittsburgh's Whitehall neighborhood, was placed at Women's Space East and says the experience "broke my stereotypes."

"I learned a lot about myself," says Blair, "and I realized that children, no matter where they come from, want to learn, and we should give them all a chance."

 Carlow Students Reach Pittsburgh's Youngest Homeless 3
Each child received a rhyme book — and practiced rhymes during circle time.

Aglio points out just how important the service-learning experience is for future teachers. Once they are employed, she says, they may teach homeless children without even realizing it.

"There is a misconception that homelessness is the man on the street corner, or the family in a shelter," says Aglio. "There are a lot more homeless individuals than people realize."

Hirsh invited individuals from various area agencies to speak to her class-among them were Aglio, Carlow alum Jeanette Casciato from Head Start, and Velma Parker, PIMS administrator/child account specialist for the Wilkinsburg School District.   

A homeless liaison for Wilkinsburg, Parker emphasizes the need to reach the youngest children, who are not yet served by the public school system.

"We can help the kids who are already enrolled in school," she says. "We can at least get them uniforms and backpacks. But it's harder to reach the younger kids who aren't in the system yet."

In an effort to better connect families with much-needed resources, Parker and Aglio worked with Hirsh's students to create a holiday-themed community fair, offered as the culminating project of the course.

Carlow Students Reach Pittsburgh's Youngest Homeless 4
Carlow junior Alyssa Perkins, an early childhood/special education major from Bethel Park, created playhouses out of cardboard boxes — showing how simple, inexpensive materials can provide hours of fun.

Pre-school age children and their caregivers were invited to the event, held at Wilkinsburg's Hosanna House community center on Wednesday, December 4. They received valuable information from area agencies and celebrated the holiday season together as they created crafts, participated in story time, and had a hot lunch. They also received Christmas gifts, collected during a toy drive on Carlow's campus.

Agencies in attendance included the ECYEH program, Head Start, Wilkinsburg Family Support Center, Project ELECT, Alliance for Infants and Toddlers, Wilkinsburg Family Center, Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children, and the Children's School.

"The personal growth I have seen in these students is remarkable," says Hirsh. "This experience-and their commitment to it-changed their future plans and helped them to realize these are just kids who need love and support-like every other kid." 

Learn more about our Early Childhood Education program which includes this Professional Communities of Practice course