Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning students get first-hand taste of what it’s like to be homeless |

Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning students get first-hand taste of what it’s like to be homeless

The visiting teachers and experts were local homeless people.

That was just one unique element of the Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning’s sophomore expedition called “Surviving and Thriving.”

The local high school teamed with Utah’s Place homeless shelter and the co-founders of A Place to Call Home, a multi-media project that shares stories about homelessness.

“It was a way for students to make the topic real instead of just talking about what might happen to someone,” said Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning Principal Erica Crane. “It’s actually meeting with real people in our community who are experiencing homelessness, learning from them, and building understanding.”

The expedition, which is what the academy calls its specialized learning programs, culminated Thursday. Students staged a celebration featuring their art, narrative stories, and presentations including performance art, a slide show, poetry, film, and dance.

Sophomore Courtney Scallin, 15, said the semester-long expedition was inspiring.

“It was something not many students get to do,” she said. “We got to meet people who we normally don’t acknowledge. It made me respect them. Not only are they out there surviving, they’re thriving in their own way.”

Becca Nick, 16, said the day she and her classmates went through the intake process at Utah’s Place was an eye-opener.

“We were given notecards that explained the scenarios of how each of us became homeless,” said Nick. “It was as if we were signing in for the first time. We got ‘breathalizered’ just like the homeless would, then the manager read us the rules. We went upstairs to the bunk rooms and saw where they sleep and the small amount of stuff they could keep. It made me appreciate so much more everything I have.”

“Hospitality House was heartened to see young people putting themselves in the shoes of people struggling with homelessness,” said Debbie McDonald, Development Director of Hospitality House, which operates Utah’s Place.

Trena Bristol, one of the homeless people who addressed students, said she felt hopeful after her interactions with the sophomores.

“They’re broad-minded and go with the flow,” said Bristol. “They don’t stereotype people or assume the worst just because of their position in life.”

Jesse Gardner, who said he has made a conscious choice to be homeless for 10 years, told students he’s ready to help them.

“I’m going to take out homelessness by bringing awareness to 10th graders,” Gardner said. “If they have problems in life, they can always come to me. I’ll show them the places to camp that are safe, and give them a tent or a sleeping bag.”

Gardner told students they can find him in downtown Nevada City if they need him. Gardner’s offer to help was a twist that surprised 16-year-old Mia Whisenand.

“Hearing his story, seeing how much he cared about everyone else, giving his love and support, and showing the compassion that he probably wants in return,” she said, “was a good example of ‘give what you want to receive.’”

She said she remembered that lesson on prom night.

“I brought along $40 in case I needed it that night,” Whisenand recalled. “I saw a homeless man in front of the Nevada Theater. After everything I’ve been learning, I knew what he was going through on a different level. I knew I had to do something. I gave him the $40 and gave him a hug. I felt it was the right thing to do.”

Academy teacher Sonya Scott said the expedition was powerful.

“Students were able to hear other people’s stories and learn so much about their community and people in the various ranges of thriving and surviving,” said Scott. “Those who are struggling are often ignored or disregarded. Students are now able to spread the message of common humanity even further.”

Students went on a winter camping trip to experience the wet, cold and discomfort many homeless people suffer. Students also visited the Mansanar National Historic Site to try to understand the struggles of Japanese-Americans who were interned there during World War II.

The sophomores studied the social, physical, and mental aspects that often determine who survives and who thrives. Each student was responsible for creating a narrative story and an art piece that conveyed a message about homelessness, which will be shared with the world via A Place to Call Home’s website.

“Each student will have their own dedicated page with their narrative and their artwork on our website under the SAEL section,” said Susan Davis, A Place to Call Home co-founder.

“It has been so fulfilling for us to bring this work down to the school level,” said Betty Louise, also a co-founder of A Place to Call Home. “The students were so responsive, curious, and engaged.”

Davis, Louise, and their A Place to Call Home project will be involved in future Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning expeditions.

“The youth is our hope,” Davis said. “If we want to change the world, that’s where we have to focus.”

Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. She can be reached at

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