Cortland class helps homeless project instead of exchanging gifts


Rather than exchanging gifts with each other, students in a Cortland Elementary School class chose to help those in need.

After the 20 fourth-graders in Holly Birdsong’s class had a chance to voice their thoughts on helping the community, it was decided they would do something for the Cold Night Out Shelter project.

The project began from community discussions by Bethel Community Church in Seymour. After learning about the homelessness issue in the county, the Rev. Dr. Sondra Gentry realized people of faith should step up to help, so she talked to various pastors and lay leaders.

From Dec. 1 to Feb. 28, churches are asked to serve as a shelter for one week when temperatures drop below 32 degrees.

Just recently, though, it was decided to have the shelter open every night.

Birdsong said her class thought if a person is without a home, they might really enjoy the comfort of a blanket and a pillow.

Fourth-grader Vivi Newkirk helped pitch the idea to the class.

“This would help our community if people didn’t have a place to stay one night, like if someone in a person’s family was sick and the family members weren’t allowed to stay at their house or if a family member was very ill and about to pass away so a dad or mom would have to quit work and wouldn’t have the money to pay for rent for their house or they couldn’t pay for the medical bills,” she said.

Tonja Couch, executive director of Jackson County United Way, connected the class with Karen Browning, outreach minister for Double Down Outreach. That organization is working with the Cold Night Out Shelter project and provides meals and other necessities to people Wednesday evenings in a parking lot on the east side of Seymour.

On Wednesday, the class presented Browning with 39 blankets and 19 pillows.

“When I heard the kids were giving up their gift exchange to help those in need, I was floored,” Browning said. “I love that teachers are looking for ways for their students to learn about giving to their community. Blankets and pillows are practical gifts that not only bring warmth but bring an extra measure of comfort to those whose lives are in flux.”

Browning also shared a lesson with the students about building community through time, talents and treasures. The same lesson has been shared with other Seymour Community School Corp. fourth-grade classes.

“Each of these three things, when given within each donor’s capacity, comes together to create a full community and allows those in need to be able to get stabilized and then give back to the community themselves,” Browning said.

She also shared the four ways Double Down Outreach defines homelessness: Totally out in the elements (living in tents, etc.), living in their vehicles, couch surfing (living with friends or family) and living in the motels.

“I was impressed with these young people,” Browning said. “They were attentive and willing to participate in the lesson. They also went above and beyond with their donations. There were more donations than there were students.”

Soon after the visit, the outreach began handing out the pillows and blankets to the friends it serves.

“I wish that the class could have been with us to see the thankfulness of those who received their gifts,” Browning said. “Joy makes a person beautiful, and these kids helped bring joy to everyone who has so far received their gifts.”

This was the third year in a row for Birdsong’s class to help a good cause instead of exchanging gifts. They picked an Angel Tree family the first year and the children’s unit at Schneck Medical Center last year.

Her current fourth-graders felt good knowing they helped a good cause.

“It made me feel good because it helped the homeless and the people who didn’t have anything,” Lizzie Morris said. “It also made me feel proud to help and share stuff to our community and give them stuff they didn’t have.”

Classmate Karson Kelly said he liked learning about helping the community, while Allie Cobb said she learned about the homelessness issue.

“It is a big problem in the world, not just in Seymour, so I think it needs to be fixed,” Cobb said. “So we collected blankets and pillows to help out as best we could.”

Even though the project is over, fourth-grader Elsie Herbert said it’s one she will always remember.

“I will remember from this project that the Cold Night Out Shelter helps people who don’t have a home,” she said. “It gives them a place to live, and they also give mittens, coats and hats to the homeless people. They also give the homeless people a big dinner to let them eat.”

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Karen Browning will begin the training series Helping Without Hurting from 6:15 to 7:45 p.m. Jan. 10 at the Jackson County Public Library, 303 W. Second St., Seymour.

This class runs for six weeks on Thursdays.

The cost to attend is $20 and covers materials.

This training helps participants understand best practices in poverty alleviation.

For information or to register, see the Events tab at