How do you teach young children complex social issues such as poverty? If you are Project Undercover, a 501(c) providing everyday needs for children living in poverty, you get a 23-year veteran of educational writing to pen a coloring book to distribute to 15,000 kids throughout the state.
“We had an initiative to get kids more involved looking at social issues,” said Janet Zwolinski, executive director of Project Undercover, who explained the idea to create a coloring book to discuss poverty with children came from a board conversation regarding how to achieve that goal. Hasbro Inc. and the Ocean State Charities Trust provided the funding for the project.
Kathleen Hollenbeck, a Warwick resident who previously wrote education books for Scholastic, found out about the project through a friend. She was originally asked to simply consult on the project but ended up offering to write the text herself.
“It was my summer vacation since I am a teacher, so I had the time,” explained Hollenbeck, who is now a middle school English teacher at St. Joseph’s in West Warwick.
Hollenbeck explained that the team at Project Undercover provided her with the message they wanted to present, and she used her background to find a way to express that to young children.
“You have to take an adult message and put it in kid’s words,” said Hollenbeck. “Just how a parent would break it down for a small child.”
“We wanted a way to reach younger children and their parents,” said Board President Richard Fleischer, who is the general manager of Beacon Communications. “The book presents serious issues in an enlightened, thoughtful and age-appropriate manner.”
The 24-page coloring book, which is currently distributed for free at public libraries, at Project Undercover diaper drives and through a partnership with the Girl Scouts of Rhode Island, features Project Undercover’s teddy bear mascot explaining that children who live in poverty do not look any different but are often hungry throughout the day and do not have many pairs of socks or underwear. The book also explains that babies are often in need of diapers if their families live in poverty.
Hollenbeck then explains Project Undercover and it’s mission to collect new, clean diapers, underwear and socks to give to the more than 45,000 children living in poverty in the state. She also includes ways the children can help by collecting the items with their families, neighborhoods and schools.
All items collected through Project Undercover are donated to 22 agencies throughout the state that then provide the supplies to families that need them. Since it was founded 20 years ago, Project Undercover has distributed more than 20 million items to Rhode Island’s needy children.
Hollenbeck admitted that when she first volunteered to write the text for the book, she did not know what Project Undercover was. She just offered to use her background and expertise to assist. “I didn’t realize how far reaching it was,” said Hollenbeck.
Now that she knows more about the organization, she is even happier she was able to be a part of it.
“It was exciting. I really found it an amazing way to reach out to people,” said Hollenbeck.
Both Hollenbeck and Zwolinski expressed the importance of informing children about poverty because they might see it every day.
“I think because poverty is not something limited to certain areas, children everywhere can see it,” said Zwolinski, pointing out that children might know a friend or classmate is different but not understand why. She adds that by explaining the issue of poverty this way, it is developing not only awareness but understanding and compassion.
“Kids can be harsh to one another. They may mark someone as different but not really understand,” said Zwolinski. “We need to educate kids as to what those differences are.
Hollenbeck echoed similar sentiments, saying it is important to promote compassion and understanding when speaking with children about poverty. She sees that as one of the biggest messages of the coloring book, along with making people aware and encouraging children to care for those who are suffering.
“Differences tend to be judged,” said Hollenbeck.
One thing Hollenbeck is especially proud of is the fact that her coloring book never uses the word “poor” or other words that portray a negative impression of poverty.
“When I started writing it, I did use the word poor,” said Hollenbeck. But the folks at Project Undercover asked that she change it. “They were really sensitive to that. I was really happy they said that.”
She said knowing the people she was writing for were trying to be sensitive to a topic while working with children made her feel more confident and comfortable with the project.
“You want to know the people you’re writing for have high standards,” said Hollenbeck.
The coloring book can also serve as a jumping off point for parents and even teachers who want to approach this topic with their kids and students.
Zwolinski explained that the book not only gives parents help with how to approach the issue but ways to get involved and have their children help the cause.
“It’s not just enough to recognize there is an issue, but to get involved and help alleviate the problem,” said Zwolinski.
As a teacher, Hollenbeck believes the book could become a useful lesson tool.
“Any one of the concepts could be a whole lesson,” she said.
Zwolinski explained that the coloring book is still in the beginning stages of being distributed, but PDF versions can be downloaded for free on Project Undercover’s website, www.ProjectUndercover.org.
Looking forward, Project Undercover is planning to partner with Alex and Ani in East Greenwich for a Charity By Design shopping event in October. Go to the website or the Project Undercover Facebook page for more information.