Special to the Times
As homeless numbers continue to rise in Santa Clara County, 7th grade students at Charter School of Morgan Hill (CSMH) used project-based learning to help their community better understand this crisis. They created Project MERCY to assist unhoused neighbors, and help spread awareness through art, writing, service learning and an interactive experience for the community called Tunnel of Despair.
For some students, Project MERCY became personal because they have homeless family members, or were homeless themselves at one time. For all students, it was an opportunity to take a deep-dive into a serious real-world issue, and offer assistance to our most vulnerable neighbors.
Students began by researching homelessness and investigating some of the causes and potential solutions. They read fiction and nonfiction books, articles from local newspapers including the Morgan Hill Times and Gilroy Dispatch, watched documentaries, wrote argumentative essays and encountered homelessness using virtual reality. They interviewed people who were formerly or currently unhoused, as well as community leaders who are trying to combat homelessness.
In an attempt to spread awareness and educate our community, students designed an interactive experience called Tunnel of Despair. They constructed a 25-foot tunnel using PVC and a tarp, then filled it with original and haunting artwork. The tunnel included frightening city noises, just like you would hear if you were living on the streets. CSMH parent Siobhan McNamara was awed by the tunnel.
“Sometimes we get caught up in our own worlds and are consumed with our own problems; stopping to consider the lives and troubles of those less fortunate is an important thing to do,” McNamara said.
Several visitors experienced the feeling of despair inside the tunnel, and remarked how eye-opening the experience was.
Outside of the tunnel, students created “urban art” to show their unfiltered thoughts and beliefs about homelessness. Upon exiting the tunnel, visitors were prompted to create a cardboard sign, imagining this as their best chance for a meal. Families then took photos and posted them on social media in an attempt to crowd-source awareness.
Seventh-grade student Charyle Tran created a large banner which read, “If we want society to accept us, we have to let society see us.” This was accompanied by several window silhouettes of people experiencing homelessness.
Cade Galloway, also a CSMH 7th-grader, recreated a homeless encampment outside, with a simple sign that read, “Would you live here?” Students Emmanuelle Van Crayelynghe and Marley Tubach created and distributed awareness stickers to the community, featuring original art designs. Seventh-graders Kirah Mistry and Sarah Qamar created custom T-shirts for Project MERCY.
These thought-provoking displays and elements were part of the interactive experience designed by the students at CSMH. An estimated 600 visitors experienced the Tunnel of Despair.
Although the students set out on their project chiefly to spread awareness about homelessness, they ultimately wanted to have a more direct impact on unhoused people in our community. Each student designed a service learning goal, then worked with their families and teacher to bring it to fruition.
In total, CSMH seventh-graders made over 200 personal hygiene kits, then distributed them to unhoused people—directly and through the Compassion Center in Gilroy. Students donated or volunteered at places such as St. Catherine Church, Safe Car Park, Reach Out, HomeFirst, Stand Up for Kids of Silicon Valley and Cecilia’s Closet.
They ran food drops at local encampments in Santa Clara County, distributed informational posters, wrote letters to state representatives and community leaders and helped tell the story of unhoused people. They presented their service learning projects at the CSMH Spring Exhibition on May 11, which ran parallel with the Tunnel of Despair.
Seventh-grade student Evee Vallejo was shocked by the homelessness in Morgan Hill.
“I was very surprised that there are so many homeless people in Morgan Hill that aren’t being helped,” Vallejo said.
Observations such as this brought several students to the realization that unhoused people are often marginalized and ignored.
The service learning portion of Project MERCY had the greatest impact on students in teaching them about the importance of making a difference. Seventh-grader Isabella Larsen quickly realized that our impact matters not only as individuals, but as a community.
“I learned there are people out there who want to make a difference,” Larsen said. When we offer assistance to our most vulnerable neighbors, the entire community benefits, the students learned.
Learning about the human condition is an imperative part of 21st century education. CSMH 7th grade students are poised to learn about the real world and their place in it. Project MERCY unlocked several critical thinking skills, helped develop empathy and became a large-scale creative outlet.
The true power of project-based learning is that it never truly ends. In the weeks since Project MERCY closed, several families continue to volunteer time and resources to help our unhoused neighbors. When students engage with their community, and go beyond the textbook, important learning occurs.
Layla Aviles is a 12 year old 7th grader at the Charter School of Morgan Hill. She enjoys writing and her favorite school subjects are Humanities and History. Layla has been a dancer at Lana’s Dance Studio for eight years. She lives in Morgan Hill with her mom, dad and brother. Teague Tubach teaches middle school Humanities at CSMH, and sometimes writes articles for Edutopia. He is interested in project-based learning, educational travel and social justice. Teague lives in Gilroy with his wife, two daughters, two cats and puppy.