Author describes project for teen assistance with homeless
by Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH
When you get a great idea about something that really matters to you, does your enthusiasm fizzle at the mere thought of creating an action plan? It's easy to see a need and have an altruistic idea that starts with “what if?” But great ideas often go by the wayside because we don't know where to start, we haven't given enough thought to the planning process, we get overwhelmed by the details, or we let fear of failure stop us.
Every successful story includes the five Ws — who, what, where, when, why, and how. Planning a successful project is as simple as following the 5–W process, a basic writing concept we all learned in grade school. The 5–W approach creates the building blocks for a memorable and well thought–out project.
My experience with the high school kids of Life Teen is a perfect example of a successful event from start to finish. I needed some helping hands to assemble Just Add Water hygiene kits, and Colette Potier, the Life Teen program coordinator, wanted a Homeless Committee member to share how we work with people on the streets.
We had a tight time frame that included a 20–minute presentation, followed by 30 minutes to assemble hygiene kits. We had a tall order for such a short period of time. To set the stage for success I had to figure out how to capture the teens' attention, relay an accurate message about life on the streets, inspire the teens to take homelessness seriously, and get as many kits as possible assembled in 30 minutes.
Colette wanted the evening to have a positive, lasting impact. Knowing that the Just Add Water project survives on donations, she asked each teen to bring either a dozen bars of soap or a dozen washcloths.
My goal was to end up with 400 complete kits. I arrived at the church hall 90 minutes early. Every square inch of my vehicle was loaded with enough supplies to meet the goal. Three teens helped me unload the boxes, set up a long line of tables, and unpack the various items, placing supplies along the 60–foot assembly line. Rows of chairs set up theater style created a relaxed atmosphere for the first part of the program, which was a slide presentation.
The rest of the teens started filing in at 7:15 p.m. Colette opened the meeting with a few housekeeping rules before my presentation. The stage was set. My presentation, full of photos of those living on the streets, was up–to–date. It was thrilling to have the opportunity to share the homeless experience with 40 fresh minds.
Colette planned to introduce me as a successful international speaker and writer, but I decided to create a different persona — one that no one expected. I walked out on the stage as a homeless woman wearing grungy shorts, a dirty t–shirt under a torn long sleeved flannel work shirt, a tattered baseball cap, mismatched socks that were falling down around my ankles, and a beat up pair of men's size 12 athletic shoes.
Rather than talk about the work we do with the homeless I started a monologue and pretended to be Annie, one of the invisible people who lives on the streets, sleeps in alleyways, eats at soup kitchens, and longs for a roll of toilet paper and a hot shower. As I told Annie's story, I mingled with the kids, pretending to strike up a conversation as if they were passing me on the street. I asked one girl to hold my faded stuffed canvas convention bag while I emptied Annie's life possessions into a young man's hands — tattered towel, a dirty t–shirt, and a Just Add Water hygiene kit.
While I'll never win a Tony Award for that performance, the teens connected with Annie's message. Apparently a few even wondered if I was really homeless. I set the record straight. The Life Teen project worked. It required a lot of careful planning and meticulous preparation, but the 5–W concept provided the framework for success.
Whatever the project, it's important to have a back–up plan. For example, what if the projector had failed or my computer hadn't started? If 60 kids showed up instead of the anticipated 40, would there have been enough supplies to keep them occupied? What steps were needed to make sure the kits contained all the necessary supplies? I needed to answer those questions and more long before the actual event, because the better the preparation, the smoother the outcome.
Adaptability is another key. Some kids forgot to bring soap. Rather than getting annoyed or panicking, we asked the teens to keep assembling the kits, but label some “no soap.” It was easier to add a bar of soap to 100 kits later than to build those 100 kits from scratch.
Taking a project from start to finish requires thinking through each step and considering potential pitfalls. Every project, whether short–term or ongoing, will have glitches. Think of these glitches as learning opportunities, and use them to refine the plan next time.
Don't let fear or the “I can't possibly do that” attitude cripple your dreams. If you've got a good idea, think about it, brainstorm with your friends, and map out a plan. You'll be surprised at your accomplishments, how much you will learn, and how much you can help other people as you take your great idea from conception to successful completion.
About the Author
Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH, is the senior consulting editor for RDH magazine. She is an international speaker who has published numerous articles and authored several textbook chapters, as well as presented seminars. She is a recipient of the 2004 Mentor of the Year Award and the 2009 Irene Newman Award and has practiced dental hygiene in Houston since 1971.
Annie had been a well–known writer for RDH magazine, but started suffering from depression. For a year or so, Annie received appropriate medical treatment, including antidepressants, which allowed her to continue her work. But when her husband, Derek, lost his bookkeeping job with the union, they couldn't afford the COBRA payments, so Annie had to rely on Medicaid. The medications were too costly and it was hard for her to remember to get to the doctor on time.
She missed dozens of writing deadlines and the pieces she did send in were so poorly written that her editor had to spend hours making sense of her gibberish. Annie had lost her spark. As sympathetic as he was, her editor finally got fed up and refused to publish her mediocre work.
When Hurricane Ike hit, Annie and Derek's house sustained severe roof damage. They lived in a nice neighborhood but couldn't afford the repairs or to run the air conditioner. Finally Annie and her husband were forced to abandon their mold–filled house, which they ultimately lost to foreclosure. The stress mounted, and one day Annie's husband suffered massive chest pain. He was gone in a matter of minutes.
Within weeks, Annie got evicted from her rundown one–bedroom apartment. Her depression grew worse by the day. She did not qualify for disability and was too young for Social Security. She had no children and her friends grew tired of giving her handouts. It's very hard to get a bed in a shelter, so Annie started sleeping in an abandoned building just around the corner from the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen. At least she had a roof over her head, but the place was full of rats and trash, and it got harder to sleep through the night as Annie feared the police would discover her hiding place and force her to leave.
One day a group showed up under a downtown bridge and started handing out hygiene kits. Annie waited patiently in the long line and worried that the group would run out before she got a kit, but she was one of the lucky ones. It had been days since she had washed her hair and weeks since she had used toothpaste. Now she had a kit full of basic hygiene supplies all neatly packaged in a zip lock bag. As soon as she found water she would be able to wash her face and brush her teeth. Life was good that day.