Pineapple Kids: William and Mary students mentor children living in poverty

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Every Thursday and Friday, volunteers from Pineapple Kids board a bus behind Blow Memorial Hall and make a 15-minute trek off campus. Their destination is the Pineapple Inn, which provides subsidized housing to families facing poverty in the Williamsburg community.

Pineapple Kids offers tutoring and mentoring to children living at the Inn. It also provides students with the opportunity to challenge common misconceptions about homelessness and poverty in Williamsburg and learn more about the issue of childhood poverty.

“I didn’t really know what to expect because I hadn’t really worked with people in poverty before or been exposed to people in poverty or low-income situations,” Cherry Wang ’20 said. “After joining Pineapple Kids I’ve realized that ‘wow, this is a real situation that people are going through every day.’”

Other members shared similar sentiments about how volunteering has made positive impacts on their lives.

“You can learn about poverty rates and a lot of injustice in systems in the world but there’s nothing that really compares to real-life, in-person experiences,” Julie Rodil ’20 said. “I think that’s a very valuable experience to have.”

According to the U.S. Census, the City of Williamsburg has a poverty rate of 21.1 percent, more than Washington, D.C., which has a poverty rate of 18.6 percent. Despite this, poverty remains mostly hidden.

“Prior to being a part of Pineapple Kids, I had no idea that the poverty rate was that high,” Rodil said. “Some of the people I’ve met at Pineapple Inn are some of the most hardworking people I’ve met, and it’s strange and disheartening to know that all they’re doing still isn’t enough to not be in low-income housing.”

Though many of the residents of Pineapple Inn are employed, sometimes with more than one job, they still struggle with making ends meet.

“I have seen William and Mary dining workers at the Inn before, and other places, and that’s very telling to what is actually being paid,” Clay Moughon ’18 said. “Even with a job, it’s still really hard for these folks.”

Although the residents of the Pineapple Inn have a place to live, that doesn’t mean the families aren’t considered homeless or in poverty.

“There are different ways to define homelessness, and different governmental organizations classify them differently,” Bianca Caccamo ’18 said. “The Pineapple Inn is very much like an inn — like one room, and a bed, like a hotel room. It’s not that they don’t have a roof over their head. However, the school system, part of their definition of homelessness is, is the housing suitable to learning, to thriving, to childhood. The answer is no — one room, one bed or maybe two beds are not suitable for a family of four, five, six, sometimes more.”

As the Pineapple Inn is neither stable nor consistent housing, the children living in it are classified as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act, which defines “homelessness” in the school system.

Though the children face added challenges throughout their schooling, Pineapple Kids works to remain a consistent and positive force in the children’s lives by giving them a space to learn and work on school homework.

“We can’t ensure that these kids have stability in the rest of their lives but we can ensure they will see the same people, and their mentor or tutor will be there,” Moughon said.

Before arriving at the Inn, the club prepares “William and Mary lessons” for the children tailored around their interests so they can take agency in their academic enrichment.

“What we’ve been focused on this semester has been health, so I did a lesson on food groups and what goes in each food group,” Caccamo said. “The kids got really engaged in sorting pictures of food in different piles, and after that or before that depending on the schedule for that day we would have homework time.”

The club also allows time for volunteers to chat with the children and create positive relationships.

“It was our last day of volunteering and you have this close connection with some of the kids,” Amma Owusu ’20 said. “They are so sad to see you go and that’s really rewarding, to have this connection with someone else, and to see how you have impacted them and how they have impacted you. As much as we teach these kids we learn a lot from them I think as well.”

While connecting with the children, the club hopes to become a positive influence on their lives by introducing new ideas, like attending college, and breaking down stereotypes in their own thinking.

“One of the great benefits that I’ve seen to this program is a lot of times they won’t know what college is,” Caccamo said. “After a time when they’re like ‘What’s William and Mary? What’s a college?’ and we’re explaining, ‘Here’s what college is and here’s all the fun things I’m studying and you get to choose what you learn.’ They’re learning about this whole institution of college which is something that, if they were to choose to pursue a college degree, is one of the biggest things that can help break the cycle of poverty. By introducing the idea of college to them young, getting them excited about it, I think that’s one of the big ways our club can make an impact.”

Caccamo explained how rewarding it was to her to make an impact on the kids’ lives.

“No matter what’s going on, they’re still just kids. They still want to laugh and get silly and have fun and dance,” Caccamo said. “They did this weird dance thing that I felt out of date because I didn’t know what they were doing, but they all knew what they were doing and it was fun and they were laughing. They are kids, so even though it’s important for us to understand the issues they’re facing and the unique challenges to their lives, at the end of the day sometimes they want to talk about their favorite TV show. It is an extremely real and extremely rewarding part of working with at-risk populations because even though they do have additional challenges they also are just like anyone else.”