For one volunteer, the annual UFT-Coalition for the Homeless Christmas party in December at union headquarters in Manhattan was a chance to remember — and pay it forward.
Teresa Bello, a prekindergarten teacher at PS 185 in Harlem, lived in a shelter when she was a teenager on Long Island. Volunteering for the first time at the annual Christmas party for homeless students was a way to honor her past and to give back what so many people gave to her during a dark time.
“I was about 14 years old, in the 8th or 9th grade,” said Bello. “I was in a shelter on Long Island, and I remember getting up at 5 a.m. to go to my home school district.”
Bello, her divorced mother and a sibling spent about 10 months in a shelter due to mental health challenges, addiction and domestic violence. Eventually they were placed in housing, but there were many moves before they found stability, she recalled. Even within the same school district, they were on different bus routes constantly. “I never went to bed without being fully dressed,” Bello said, in case something happened in the middle of the night. “You’re never settled.”
Bello remembers those chaotic months and the generous donations from caring organizations and individuals. “The toiletries and hand-me-down clothing and the school supplies — it was everything,” she said. At the UFT party, her feelings of “relatability and empathy” soared as she watched the children celebrate the holiday and saw “that little sparkle of joy from the presents, face painting and dancing.”
The party brought in 150 students from temporary housing or shelters around the city to momentarily forget the pain and struggle of being homeless and instead play games, get their faces painted, meet Santa Claus and enjoy a magic act.
“Every student deserves the chance to experience the magic and joy of the holiday, regardless of what’s going on at home,” said UFT Vice President for Elementary Education Karen Alford, the event organizer.
Bello would like students who are without a home, for whatever reason, to know things will get better.
“If you’ve grown up in chaos, there is a way out,” she said, eager to share her story with anyone who needs to hear it. “That’s my drive and motivation. Homelessness can happen to anyone.”