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Students wed academics, service to learn about urban poverty

Bringing products and friendship to Heartside neighbors


Aedan Dresen and Dot Pedtke walked through Heartside Ministry, offering pieces of buttered bread to the neighbors hanging out there on a Friday morning. Back in the art room, Terrance Jackson happily took one.

“It tastes really good,” Jackson said with a smile. “I give it a 10.”

Grand Rapids Public Museum is a proud sponsor of SNN
Grand Rapids Public Museum is a proud sponsor of SNN

Aedan, Dot and classmate Renee Webster, students at Grand Rapids Public Museum High School had made the butter as part of a schoolwide project on urban poverty. They’d brought it that morning to the Heartside Chapel on South Division Avenue, where they presented a PowerPoint on the molecular structure of its ingredients, and then spread it on slices of whole-grain bread to pass out.

“Did you say it’s cheaper than store-bought butter?” neighbor Jason Nash asked them. “It can be cheaper, because you make it,” Aedan said.

Rico Card reacts to a card he drew in a poverty-simulation game, while classmate Jacari Walker looks on

The butter was one of many products the students made for their project, in hopes they could be useful to people who live not far from their school at 54 Jefferson Ave. SE. Held over several weeks, the project involved all 82 Museum High students in applying science, English and social studies to the problems of poverty and socio-economic injustice in Grand Rapids.

They call it the theme core class, in which students break into groups of three in morning study blocks. The school’s three teachers team up to wed academics with social issues – a prime example of Museum School’s emphasis on place-based learning.

“Instead of social barriers being the norm,” said teacher Nathaniel Langel, who led the chemistry component, the project aims to foster “a mutual understanding, or at least a right hand of fellowship. We want our students to have a conversation with and become a friend to someone who doesn’t have a home.”

Sophia Almonte enjoys mixing colors in the art studio

Connecting Learning with Neighbors

Langel, along with fellow teachers Julie Allerding and Candice Anderson, utilize downtown as outdoor classroom space for their freshmen students. Located in the former Grand Rapids Public Museum, the high school opened this year as an extension of the Museum Middle School located in the current museum. A grade will be added to the high school each year.

For the poverty project, the English component learned about and worked with a community food club, and the social studies piece simulated poverty situations in connection with local government. Along with the chemistry strand, students visited community sites at least twice.

This followed a project last fall where students examined the social and environmental costs of urban progress. They surveyed customers at Bridge Street Market to see who the new grocery’s clientele was, and concluded it was serving a broad variety of customers, not just a privileged few.

At Heartside Ministry, 54 S. Division Ave., students learned about the long-standing agency that sees about 100 neighbors a day, offering counseling, an art studio, a GED program and worship services. Their visits were a way for students to learn about the social realities of homelessness, and to show that Heartside is “a wonderful neighborhood,” said Executive Director Gregory Randall.

“Where the benefit really comes in is when they can meet some of our neighbors, have a human connection and realize we’re all created in the image of God here,” said Randall, a former banker. “Everyone’s deserving of dignity and respect.”

Arianna Grant enjoys a moment with her classmates in the art studio

Offering Cookies, Soap and Scrubs  

Students were greeted by the enticing aroma of hot coffee on a frigid winter morning during their first visit. A free cup of joe and clean restroom are “pretty important” to many neighbors, along with sandwiches brought by church volunteers, Development Director Peggy Helsel told them.

She led them through a poverty-simulation exercise, where drawing a card earned or cost them candy based on losing a job, a car breaking down and other life-altering events. They also worked in the art studio, mixing primary colors alongside Heartside artists like Christa DeHaan, who painted a landscape.

“It’s nice to see all colors of our humanity, and find ways where we can inspire others to come help organizations like these,” Aedan Dresen said as she mixed.

The class returned a few weeks later, bringing products they had made from their chemistry studies geared for the neighbors. Teams of teens presented PowerPoints on the molecular properties of chocolate chip cookies, laundry detergent, facial scrubs, hand soap and other items, and handed out samples to neighbors.

“My product helps hydrate your skin,” said Sophia Almonte, who’d brought lavender salt scrub. “You can use it in the shower, to wash your hands, any way you want.”

Jason Nash took samples of the scrub, a cookie and jello, which he said he hadn’t had in a long time. He was impressed by the students’ work. “I never did this in my school,” he said.

“You’re part of the Heartside family now,” Randall told students at morning’s end.

Dot Pedtke spreads pieces of bread with butter she and her classmates made

Gaining Value-added Knowledge

Some students returned this week to bring about 20 bars of cured soap, and bought an artwork that they’ll hang in the school. Since their visits, some ran into neighbors they’d met, on the bus, public library and downtown – part of the social barrier-breaking “notion of empathy” driving the project, Langel said.

Students came away with that and more.

“I never really realized how much you can help somebody,” said Jourdin Merrill, who was herself inspired to help. “I never knew you could get free showers or free food. I think this is a really cool place.”

Emry Herring enjoyed learning about how to make coconut-oil lotion, bottle it, and being able to put his learning to good use.

“It’s a great way for us to learn something new, with the idea of helping someone else,” Emry said. “A lot of times school projects go into your knowledge and just that. It’s cool this is very much of an open-ended project. It can go into something much more.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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