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The human side of homelessness: Charleston students celebrate Valentine's Day with guests at Mattoon shelter

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MATTOON — After visiting with some of the grade school students who stopped by Friday, Brad Adams said he appreciated what the opportunity brought for him and the youngsters.

"It's nice to see young people come in," Adams said of what he and other guests of The Haven homeless shelter in Mattoon got with the visit.

Also, for Adams, it was good that the students were able to see the people staying in the shelter on a more personal basis.

"Homelessness can have a lot of different faces," he said.

For student Carson Newell, it was the fruition of his convincing his fourth-grade classmates at Jefferson Elementary School in Charleston to pay the visit and help the shelter.

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Carson said he'd been to the shelter before with his family and during a camp activity and "saw that they really needed help."

"It could make them feel like their sons and daughters were visiting them," he said of how the shelter guests might react.

The 26 students in teacher Yvonne Larson's class at Jefferson spent about an hour at the shelter Friday morning. They served the guests a Valentine's Day breakfast, played games with them and brought candy along with a $105 donation of money they raised.

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Larson said the project grew out of a school unit that had the students write about a need and persuade people to do something about it.

She said Carson not only used helping the homeless shelter as the topic for his assignment but went on to urge his classmates to put the idea into practice.

"I had to hide my tears," Larson said of her reaction to Carson's idea.

Carson also said he let his classmates know they'd enjoy the experience and the shelter guests would appreciate it.

"I told them it would be fun if they have someone to come over and play with," he said.

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Haven Executive Director Chris Davis said it always "brings some liveliness" when children visit the shelter and it also helps address some preconceptions.

"It gives the children a chance to see the human side of homelessness," he said. "We're still all human beings."

Of Carson, Davis said he was impressed that "a young person had such an open mind and open heart." Visiting with the youngsters will be a great benefit to the shelter's guests, he added.

"They're integrating back into society," he said. "It gives them a healthy interaction they don't get on a regular basis."

A smaller group of students visited the shelter just before Thanksgiving and they were surprised to see some children their own age staying with families there, Larson said.

Those students "came back raving" about the experience so the rest of the class was eager to make another trip, she said.

Larson said the effort also fits with a school district student leadership initiative called "The Leader in Me" and the project was another chance to put it into practice.

"Everyone's a winner with this," she said.

She also admitted that, when Carson first mentioned helping the shelter, she had some concerns about the logistics. But she later thought "why would I change this?" and agreed.

"I am so glad we went," she said.


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