Service-learning class connects students to Bloomington’s homeless population through storytelling

Post courtesy of IU Newsroom intern Laura Ellsworth:

A Spring 2016 intensive writing course titled “The Rhetoric of Home and Citizenship” turned into more than an academic learning experience for IU instructor Laura Clapper and her students. Their work became the focus of the documentary “Like You, I Have a Story to Tell,” created as a partnership between Gudaitis Productions, Shalom Community Center and Clapper’s course.

The course, which was supported by an information-literacy grant from IU Libraries, not only resulted in the documentary, but allowed Clapper and her students to work with library staff to archive the stories they told and the research projects the students created.

The Monroe County Public Library will screen “Like You, I Have a Story to Tell” at 5 p.m. March 2. Following the screening, the documentary will be posted on Shalom Community Center’s website.

Image from "Like You, I Have a Story to Tell."

A participant in “Like You, I Have a Story to Tell.” Photo courtesy of Crawford Homes.

This was Clapper’s first experience teaching a service-learning course. The idea came from a conversation between Shalom Community Center assistant director Danielle Sorden and IU’s Service-Learning Program, when Sorden communicated that the residents of Crawford Homes were hoping to share their life stories with the community. Crawford Homes is a program through Shalom Community Center that works to provide supportive housing to chronically homeless and disabled individuals.

The life-writing possibilities of this partnership were enticing to Clapper, who had finished a teaching service-learning internship and was looking to create a service-learning course when she heard about Crawford Homes reaching out to IU.

“My biggest concern when I was planning this service-learning class was co-creating a course that would be meaningful to the community and to students,” said Clapper.

Meaning from the course certainly came to junior Katie Thierwechter, who started out taking the class simply to fill a requirement.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” the journalism student said.

Thierwechter herself was drawn to the course topic, having worked on a Tumblr page called “Humans of Bloomington” for a previous class within her major, but Clapper’s course wasn’t quite what she expected.

“Laura was so excited and laid it all on us on the first day,” said Thierwechter. “It was the hardest class I’ve ever taken.”

Students began by researching homelessness, reading and analyzing sources to prepare for being paired up with participating individuals connected to the course through the Shalom Community Center.

In addition to their studies, students each volunteered for nine hours during the semester at the Interfaith Emergency Winter Shelter in Bloomington.  Students helped oversee nighttime operations at the shelter during 3 hour shifts as a part of service immersion.

Once the research was complete and the volunteering in full swing, students were paired with formerly homeless individuals to help tell their stories – stories that are now featured in “Like You, I Have a Story to Tell.”

The half-hour documentary premiered at Shalom Community Center last month. It shows the entire storytelling process, from students meeting their partners to small group meetings to the final project.

Thierwechter was paired with a man named Jeremy, and she was surprised by his honesty.

“Jeremy was able to be really real about the homeless population,” said Thierwechter. “People react differently to events in their life, and sometimes these reactions lead to traumatic periods of time.”

Thierwechter learned from Jeremy about his 10-year experience with homelessness and alcoholism after the death of a loved one. Jeremy has since made positive changes in his life and has been granted custody of his children.

“They mean the world to him and the way he spoke about them, we could tell they were his life,” Thierwechter said of Jeremy’s relationship with his family. “For someone to give up their addiction for someone they love and care about, that’s pretty special and says a lot about the person in general.”

“This is my favorite class I’ve ever taken and I hope they offer it to other people,” Thierwechter said.

Thierwechter also said that it was important for her and her fellow students to use their visibility as students to help tell these stories.

“I think this makes a difference,” Thierwechter said. “Some people choose not to hear some things. Other perspectives are important.”

IU’s College of Arts and Sciences offers service-learning with the intention of promoting socially responsible citizenry, and Thierwechter’s individual takeaway from the class is evidence that community service immersion can make an impact.

“I really want to do something with a nonprofit – maybe working with homeless people. When I’m a senior, I want to do some extra volunteering because it allowed me to connect with people,” Thierwecheter said. “I learned I’m really lucky.”

Danielle Sorden said that Crawford Homes treasures the opportunities to work with service-learning students from IU.

“Our residents have had chances to engage in activities that would not have been possible without the creativity and work of IU students,” Sorden said.

Sorden quoted the late TV children’s program host Fred Rogers to explain how the documentary can teach the public: “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”

More information about Crawford Homes can be found online.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,