Teens address homelessness during problem-solving project.
Behind the gates of her community, The Country Club, Madelyn Kumar doesn't have many interactions with the homeless.
The 17-year-old has lived in Lakewood Ranch for 10 years. Whenever she saw a homeless person in downtown Bradenton or other areas of the county, she usually walked the other way and looked down at her feet.
"I didn't see homeless people on a regular basis, living in Lakewood Ranch," Kumar said. "I've grown up in a sheltered Lakewood Ranch community, so I think my nervousness stems from inexperience."
Kumar and her nine teammates from Southeast, Braden River and Lakewood Ranch high schools formed the Manatee Community Problem Solvers group and decided to learn more about the estimated 5,000 homeless people living in Manatee County.
For the annual Future Problem Solvers state competition, the Manatee Community Problem Solvers group interviewed homeless people for their project, titled "Humans of Manatee County" and the "Just Say Hello, Homeless are Humans Too" campaign.
"We realized none of us paid attention to the homeless," Kumar said. "Our problem was how to address the needs of the homeless to better provide them with resources and to allow them to feel more like humans. They are invisible members of society who don't feel respected."
Their efforts earned the team the Grand Champion award at the state competition held April 2. The students are advancing to the Future Problem Solvers 2016 International Conference June 1 through June 5 at Michigan State University.
For their project, the students collected and donated more than 4,000 blankets, towels, backpacks, shoes, food and clothing to homeless-focused organizations, such as Turning Points.
The team members mentor elementary school-aged children at the Visible Men Academy. Those children are homeless or are at-risk for being homeless in the near future, Kumar said.
They filmed a five-minute documentary for the Sarasota Film Festival's student division, collected caps and gowns for homeless high school seniors, and they cooked, served and met with homeless individuals at Remnant Cafe, a Sarasota-based organization that provides free coffee and food to the homeless.
Some students stepped away from the comforts of their East County neighborhood and ventured into an undisclosed wooded area in west Bradenton, where they knew homeless families lived.
"Going into the woods was dangerous," Kumar said. "We definitely felt apprehensive in certain situations, but we wanted to push ourselves for this project. We had never done anything like this before."
Kumar and her team created a Facebook page designed to ask their peers to be friendlier to the homeless.
The page, titled Humans of Manatee County, is modeled after the Humans of New York Facebook page, which profiles the stories of individuals who live in New York, along with a photo of each person interviewed.
Humans of Manatee County featured stories of local homeless people who struggled to overcome drug use, and to find employment and places to live.
The "Just Say Hello, Homeless are Humans Too" campaign is another effort to draw awareness to the homeless issue, by way of pens, bumper stickers and word of mouth.
"When we asked the homeless, 'What can we do to help you?' their response was, 'Just say hello to us when we say hello to you,'" Kumar said. "We were inspired by that."
Sixteen-year-old Olivia Yaryura, who has been involved with community problem solving since seventh grade, said this project was special to her.
The Braden River High student enjoyed getting to know a different side of her community, one she doesn't experience often in East County.
"Most people just turn their heads when they see homeless people," Yaryura said. "But the fact that we are just high school students, and we are able to connect with these individuals on a different level than most is neat to me. I enjoyed hearing their stories."