Book clubs are a popular social outlet for women living in comfortable suburban neighborhoods. Not so much for women who are homeless. Yet, this spring, students in Professor Holly Blake’s WILL Senior Seminar (WGSS 301) facilitated a book club to help bridge the gap between themselves and homeless mothers living at the Flagler Home of St. Joseph’s Villa, a residential program that supports homeless women and their children. The students and the women read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, meeting for four sessions to discuss it.

Another group from the class planned literacy-related activities around specific children’s books for the mothers and their young children. All of the students in the seminar are seniors minoring or majoring in women, gender and sexuality studies (WGSS).

“Working with Flagler I found we had to confront homelessness head on,” says Monica Rocha, ’10. “I talked to children who were homeless. Seeing their faces, and how hard they had to struggle, and seeing how tired they were all the time made me empathize more. It put a face to an abstract problem.”

That’s the main goal of Community-Based Learning (CBL), explains Blake, director of the WILL program and associate dean for women's education and development. “The biggest benefit comes from connecting the theory with the practice,” she says. “That’s really what’s at the heart of the WILL program: When students encounter social problems and inequities, I want them to be able to see the problem, think about it, know where to go to learn more, and have the tools to take action.”  

Students began the semester by writing in a journal about their preconceived ideas of homelessness. Jaila Ingram-Johnson, ’10, recalls feeling conflicted at the start of the class. “I was torn between thinking we need to help [the homeless], and thinking, ‘Why aren’t they helping themselves?’” she says. “Through this experience I learned that sometimes they just aren’t able to help themselves. It is our responsibility… to show them the same respect as everybody else, and to provide them help they can take when they are ready for it.”

Melanie Martin, ’10, knows many people think the homeless are mentally ill or uneducated, but she has learned differently by getting to know the Flagler residents through the book club. “These are people who could be my peers,” she says. “In different circumstance, that could be me. I think realizing that was a big changing point for me.”

Judy Mejia, program manager for the Richmond Families Initiative at Richmond's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, was instrumental in connecting Blake with the Flagler Home. This is the second year Blake has had her class work with residents of the program.

Though their work with the Flagler Home comprised only a quarter of the WILL senior seminar, for many students, it will stick with them the longest.

“With experiences like this you learn more than you might have otherwise,” says Martin, who is a psychology major and WGSS minor. “Students here at UR are so talented and so hard working, you might as well put your effort into something that’s going to make a difference. Rather than just writing a paper or doing a project that will eventually get thrown away, why not put that energy and work into something that matters?”

Blake’s goal was to encourage the seminar students to look at a social problem through the lens of WGSS. “I wanted to give students an opportunity to apply what they learned in the classroom while also making a contribution in some way.” 

The students adapted both the book club and the children’s program as the semester progressed and as they came up against the realities of the challenges faced by the residents of the Flagler Home. They incorporated poems, which could be read quickly on the spot, into the book club discussions. The sessions often started with discussion about the book, and then meandered to talk about social issues.

“What was interesting to me was that while we were working with them I was not always thinking about them being homeless,” Ingram-Johnson says. “It helped me realize it can happen to anybody.”