Smiling broadly, Nikki Gane surveyed the classroom of first- and third-grade students at Edmonds’ Westgate Elementary School Wednesday working on a task close to her heart: packaging toiletries, wash clothes and combs for distribution to homeless women and men.
Nearly five years ago, Gane founded the nonprofit organization Dignity for Divas, which distributes toiletry kits to homeless people on the streets and at tent cities in six cities across the region, including Seattle and Everett. Her passion for the issue stems from her own personal experience with homelessness 10 years ago, when she spent eight days living in her car after a divorce.
“I started to do this because I remembered how bad I felt when I couldn’t brush my teeth or wash my face,” Gane told the students. “I wanted to help someone else so they never had to feel the way I felt, ’cause it felt pretty bad.”
Shelly Dearmon, who teaches third grade at Westgate, happened to see a story in The Seattle Times last year about Gane and her organization. It dovetailed with a classroom discussion she had been having with her students about empathy, and the relationship between Dignity for Divas and Westgate students, families and staff was born.
To implement the project, Dearmon’s class of third-graders and teacher James Roy’s class of sixth-graders became classroom buddies with Westgate’s two first-grade classes, taught by Jamie Curtis and Jan Chang. A few months ago, Gane — who often does outreach to school children as well as other groups interested in helping — was invited to come to the classes to speak. She then answered the students’ questions about how and why she became homeless, and what it means to help others in need.
Dearmon and Curtis said that the project was developed to align with the school curriculum — students wrote letters to potential supporters (such as parents, teachers and the school principal) asking for toiletry donations. Toiletries were collected during the school’s recent Popcorn Night (free popcorn in exchange for donations), and Gane returned to the school Wednesday to oversee the packaging effort and celebrate the students’ accomplishments with words of praise and high-fives.
“You guys did an amazing job,” Gane told the students, explaining that the approximately 500 kits created by the four classes Wednesday would be distributed to those in need this Friday. She also promised to send photos of the distribution effort to the students’ teachers, “so you can see who you helped.”
Before Gane left, first-grade teacher Jamie Curtis asked the students to share how they felt about the work they had completed.
“It puts a very big smile on my face because I like helping people,” said Sam.
“I felt like I was really helping out and standing up for others,” added Olivia. “I’m really happy that we were doing this.”
— Story and photos by Teresa Wippel