The UFT hosted an afternoon of food, fun and free coats for students experiencing homelessness at its Thanksgiving Luncheon on Nov. 20, when more than 130 children filled Shanker Hall at UFT headquarters in Manhattan.
"It's a day of joy away from everything else where kids can just be kids," said UFT Vice President for Middle Schools Richard Mantell, who organized the event.
The children, including District 75 students for the first time, received about 140 coats for themselves and their siblings and enjoyed arts and crafts, face-painting and even a "Beauty and Glam" hair and nail station.
The need could hardly be greater. More than 100,000 New York City public school students were homeless at some point during the 2020–21 school year, according to data from the state Education Department. Though that total dropped about 9% from the high reached during the 2019–20 school year when the COVID-19 pandemic began, it's still 42% higher than the numbers at the start of the decade.
"As educators, everybody knows somebody who's experienced homelessness," said Mara Baboff, a UFT chapter leader and special education teacher at the John F. Kennedy Jr. School in Queens, who led a group of student volunteers from her special education class at the luncheon.
"We've all encountered a student — or more — where your response is not just to educate them but to help them survive in this world," she said.
The pandemic forced the UFT to skip the annual event in 2020 and focus on fundraising for the new coats, hats and gloves ordinarily given out at the luncheon.
This year, the fun was back in full force. The union welcomed students living in the city's shelters for a lunch packed with kid's favorites: chicken nuggets, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and pizza bites.
Precautions were taken to keep the event COVID-free; the UFT worked with the city Department of Health to bring testing vans to the homeless shelters so kids could get the all-clear before they attended. All adults were masked and had to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test.
The UFT collected about 600 coats and 400 scarves, pairs of gloves and hats, with donations still coming in. The remaining apparel after the attendees got their gear will be distributed to schools and shelters throughout the city. The union also raised almost $15,000 for the luncheon.
"What makes this event particularly special is that it respects the kids enough to give them a choice," said Shaquieta Boyd, a former UFT chapter leader volunteering at the event. "They pick out what they want."
Retiree Tina Schneider said volunteering at the event was a rewarding experience. "You can't be more fulfilled than to see their happiness, the look on their faces when they get a new jacket, hat and gloves," she said.
Fellow retiree Jackie Herman also noted the joy: "Even with their masks on, you can see the smiles in their eyes."