Downey High teens get ‘major reality check’ on homelessness from school project

naustin@modbee.comFebruary 25, 2014 

    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin

Downey High School teens got lessons on homelessness, studying the story of a Florida college student who dozed on friends’ couches, slept in trailers or spent nights walking for three years, too proud to admit he had no bed of his own.

Last week, Josh Williams traveled from Florida to speak at the Modesto campus. This week, Downey teens talked about the schoolwide H3O project and what they learned from Williams’ life.

“Major reality check,” summed up junior Lanessa Caraccilo. “People say being homeless, it’s their own fault. But it’s half and half. I guarantee, some people, it is on them. But others, it isn’t.”

“It made me feel thankful for what I have,” said senior Jaedon Webb. “I was ecstatic just to finally meet him.”

“Everything he struggled with, to be able to graduate college and keep on going with his life,” junior Lisset Herrera said. “Think of so many people, they have a place to live, they have textbooks, and they’re not even trying.”

“It was an eye-opener,” said sophomore Kayla Crawford. “I was shocked at how nice he looked. He was like us. A lot of people think of the homeless as scary, or trying to hurt you. They’re just like us.”

Downey H3O – three H’s for homelessness, hunger and human needs, plus O for opportunity to help – started as a schoolwide common-core project in December, but grew beyond its academic roots, Principal Richard Baum said.

The first day, in English class, every student read a news article on Williams from The Daytona Beach News-Journal. The second day, every class joined in, focusing on some aspect of homelessness or human needs.

Webb said his business-law class looked at the recession, how businesses closing led to lost jobs and foreclosed homes. In math class, Crawford studied statistics about increasing homelessness; in her dance class, students sat outside without jackets. Caraccilo’s Spanish class talked about overcoming obstacles.

The third day was for writing projects, drawing in students’ reflections. A campus drive gathered food and clothing for needy Downey families.

“I have stacks and stacks of student writings. Students that hadn’t been writing now had something real and tangible to write about,” Baum said. Students no one suspected had problems talked about being homeless, or makeshift arrangements sharing housing with multiple families. “They could relate. They had the same feelings of pride. They couldn’t tell anybody. It helped us recognize there is a need in our Downey community.”

To make Williams’ visit happen with no available funding, the principal arranged a JetBlue “buddy pass” free ticket, opened his guest room and provided transportation. “He’s my daughter’s age. It was fun to see the world from his eyes,” Baum said. Williams had never been to California, so they took time to be tourists.

A signed photograph of Williams smiling, wearing a Downey T-shirt, standing on a San Francisco beach, sits in the principal’s office. On his phone, Baum follows Williams’ Instagram feed, as do 500 Downey students.

Williams graduated with a degree in criminal justice and now works with teen inmates for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. He said he used to dream of being Superman. Now he plans to get a master’s degree, with the ultimate goal of helping more youths avoid the life he was handed.

Abandoned by his teenage mother, Williams grew up shuffled among family members in Miami, he said at Downey assemblies Friday. He spoke with anger about years living with no caring adults, when food, bed space and even safety were never guaranteed. Leaving for college, he walked away from his past, living by his wits and passing his courses through sheer determination.

“I learned how to be humble,” Williams told students, and fully appreciate every opportunity to eat, sleep or spend time with a loved one.

Baum said the Downey project “met and exceeded expectations.” Teachers and administrators have joined forces again for the next project, planned for April 28-30. This time, the school will take on a technology issue – “nomophobia,” the fear of not having your cellphone.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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