Dr. Stacey Smith has been teaching English for 27 years in Verona’s public schools, but she never dreamed that teaching a novel would inspire a charity project. That happened this year, when she introduced her honors English students at H.B. Whitehorne Middle School to a memoir about homelessness and eighth grader Jack Latson read it and decided to help the homeless in our area.
The book was “The Glass Castle,” a 2005 memoir by Jeannette Walls about growing up in a dysfunctional family and its struggles with homelessness. Latson was surprised by how quickly it moved him to action.
“I never thought a book from English class could be so inspiring and make me realize how important these issues are,” he says. “I figured my Mom and I could do something to help, but I never thought I could grow this idea into something more. Right away, we got busy researching how to help the homelessness and were surprised to see how many opportunities are so close by.”
With his mother, Sarah Latson, he searched for places in town or nearby that would accept toiletry donations. They discovered places such as the Human Needs Food Pantry in Montclair, the food pantry at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Verona, and Bridges Outreach, an organization that helps people experiencing homelessness in nearby cities, and then made calls to determine which types of personal care items each could use.
“When Jack explained his vision, I was immediately hooked,” says Sarah Latson. “I wanted to help him plan the logistics but also show him that anything is possible if you want to help those in need. After just a few days, we learned how much of an issue homelessness is everywhere, and we figured even if we only collected a handful of donations, we’d make a difference. We’re hoping to branch this project to our church and I can’t wait to see where it takes our community.”
Once the research was complete, Jack Latson spoke with Dr. Smith and David Galbierczyk, principal of HBW’s Carnegie House, to see if they were interested in the idea. They were, and shortly afterward, Latson put a bin at HBW for students to drop off dental care items, hair care products, and other personal hygiene products. He says that, after his classmates learned of the project, they began participating enthusiastically: At the end of the first week of collections, there were more than 200 items in the bin. Latson will keep the bin at school until this Friday, June 4.
“This idea just started as something from reading a book and something I thought I could do with my family, but I am so thankful that my classmates and the town have been so supportive,” Latson says. “I just want to show everyone that you can always help those in need, and that our small actions every day really can make a change.”
For Dr. Smith, it has been inspiring. “I have been teaching ‘The Glass Castle’ for three years, but I never have seen an idea outside of class take off like this,” she says. “This year, we spent many of our discussions on homelessness, and I think these critical topics opened students’ eyes. Creatively making positive changes in small towns like Verona will pave the way for a brighter future with less homelessness.”