By Aura Carlson '18 and Rose Houglet '18
“I have learned the good hearts of so many of our street friends and how just treating them like any other human being can make such a difference,” said freshman Greyson Dunn about his experience with the Sock Institute.

Last January, Mike Smith, motivational speaker and founder of Skate for Change talked to Upper School students in assembly about his work with the homeless community. “It’s simple. All it takes is an extra pair of socks. . . and some compassion to completely change someone’s day. Anyone can do this,” Smith said.

Inspired by his story and actions, a group of students asked Smith what they could do to help. When Smith suggested that collecting socks would be beneficial, students created an EK-12 Sock Drive in the spring of 2015 with the help of English teacher Ashley Tidey.

After collecting over a thousand pairs of socks, the group met with Tidey, Dr. Mimi Doohan, a global health advocate and founder of Doctors Without Walls, and Stephen Gruver, the volunteer coordinator for Common Ground Santa Barbara, a homeless advocacy organization, to decide how to distribute the socks.

This core group of students and faculty decided to create an official group that later became known as the Sock Institute — a name suggested by English teacher Charles Donelan.

The Sock Institute’s main focus is to reach out to the homeless community by using socks as a tool of engagement.

With Doohan’s help, the participants of the Sock Institute decided that the best option was to have a three-hour training at school and then go hand out the socks at two Thursday night community suppers in Alameda Park, on Sept. 24 and Oct. 8.

Fifty-four Laguna Blanca students from grades 8 through 12 attended the training in which Gruver and Doohan guided students in the most effective way to interact with the homeless.

Several local organizations work together to create the meal sharings: Doctors Without Borders, who supply medical care; Common Ground, who help house the homeless; Westmont College, who provide clothing and other essentials; and local churches who prepare the food.

Students split up into small groups and worked with a team leader from Common Ground or Westmont College. They had conversations with the homeless and shared jokes.

“Meeting some homeless people who had a strong sense of humor and a positive outlook made it easier to talk to someone and still feel empathy, but not so much pity,” junior Clara Hillis said.

After hearing the stories from Santa Barbara’s homeless community, the 50 students met again to reflect on their experiences.

“Hearing the struggles they face make mine feel like nothing. I am going to look at my issues in the context of the bigger scheme of things,” junior Grace MacNeil said.

Furthermore, after both meal sharings, the participants filled out post-outreach narrative and statistical empathy surveys. The core group from the Sock Institute then compiled the results and used them for the poster to be presented at the International Street Medicine Conference in San Jose.

Tidey traveled with students Greyson Dunn, Jose Espinosa, Clara Hillis, Grace MacNeil, Luke Smillie, and Julia Stone to the conference. At the conference, the students listened to speakers, and shared the poster and the experiences they had handing out socks.

In the future, the Sock Institute envisions helping the homeless prepare for El Niño with supplies such as tarps and raincoats as well as proposing an advanced course in Global Health for the 2016-17 academic year.

Grace summed up her experience with the Sock Institute thus far saying, “It is such an intense multi-layered project. As we went through the process, our ideas only got bigger and better: from interviewing the homeless community on the streets, to developing a research project, to attending a conference, we grew this project as we grew our empathy.”

88% said that the experience of homeless outreach changed them personally
96% said that this experience has changed the way they view homeless people
77% experienced an increase in their personal empathy levels
88% want to have more experiences with outreach.

Reprinted with permission from The Fourth Estate, Issue 1 (Nov 2015).
Laguna Blanca is Santa Barbara’s premier private, co-educational, college preparatory day school for students in Early Kindergarten through Grade 12.