Ross Township girl raises awareness about homeless children

| Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012, 2:45 p.m.

Although homelessness among adults is a recognized problem, many people do not realize that more than 9,000 children slept at least one night in a homeless shelter in 2011, according to a report by Staci Perlman of Kutztown University of Pennsylvania and Joe Willard of the People's Emergency Center in Philadelpha.

However, Ellie Fleischer, 9, of Ross Township and a fourth-grader at McInytre Elementary School in Ross, organized an event in partnership with the Homeless Children's Education Fund last month to help raise awareness about the issue.

An avid volunteer with her grandmother at a homeless shelter in Pittsburgh's Strip District, Ellie has developed a passion for spreading the word about those in need. She spearheaded “Stand Up: A Performance Art Installation,” which involved more than 100 students who, during recess on Oct. 19, stood quietly for five minutes while covering their faces with masks. The event was designed to mark Homeless Children's Awareness Week.

“The whole message of the week was to tell people that there are homeless children,” Ellie said. “During the Stand Up, we all held painted masks over our face, which represents the homeless children. A lot of times, you can't see them, so you're disguising yourself, and that's like what we did.”

Ellie took the initiative to make a presentation on homelessness, a task that her mother, Jennifer, 37, said is more than some adults would have undertaken.

“At first, I had a few reservations because I wasn't sure her friends and kids at school would take to it. She wrote and organized the presentation all by herself, and her friends really stood by her during the process,” Jennifer Fleischer said.

McIntyre Principal Amy Mathieu said Ellie's project had an impact on the school's students.

“Following the event, many students asked questions about supporting children who are homeless and thought about ways they and their families might be able to support them,” Mathieu said.

“Many students expressed an appreciation for their own family situation and showed compassion for those who are not as fortunate.”

Mathieu said Ellie is dedicated to her cause.

“Ellie's enthusiasm for supporting children who are homeless is contagious,” Mathieu said. “She is passionate about making a difference for others.”

Krystle Morrison, community outreach assistant for the Homeless Children's Education Fund, based in Pittsburgh, said the purpose of “Stand Up” performance-art installations is raising awareness about the issue and that they can have an impact on both the participants and passers-by.

She said the silent event has the power to raise questions, either from the volunteers or onlookers, and could be the first realization a person has that children experience homelessness, including some in Allegheny County.

Morrison said Ellie is helping the cause.

“She is, by her own involvement, increasing the awareness about children experiencing homelessness among her peers. And because of her efforts, there is the possibility that they will understand, in a small way, what it might be like for someone to live without stable housing and what they're response should be,” Morrison said.

Jennifer Fleischer said her daughter is enthusiastic about volunteering at the homeless shelter.

“For some people, it's a chore to go to the shelter,” Ellie's mother said. “But she's the one calling her grandma every weekend to ask if they're going.”

For the last three years, she has done everything from playing games or just talking, and, Ellie said, she enjoys bringing comfort to children who might not find it otherwise.

She said she hopes to organize an event in which her schoolmates can interact with the children she helps every weekend. In the long term, she strives to make her excitement about community service into a full-time career.

“I want to do this as long as I can,” Ellie said.

Alex Audia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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