Writing an essay about Rosa Parks brought Pearl McFall more than a $500 prize. It brought her to downtown Grand Rapids’ homeless haunts on Christmas Eve.
There she handed out 22 gift bags filled with warm socks and food to people stamping their feet in the deep snow and frigid air. While others were opening brightly wrapped packages in warm homes, Pearl handed out the bags on which she had spent more than $300 of her winnings.
One man in Heartside Park cried as he unwrapped two pair of thermal socks, she recalled.
Such responses deeply touched Pearl, an Innovation Central junior with a heart for the homeless.
“They kept saying ‘Thank you, God bless, thank you so much,’” she said. “It took me a lot not to cry. They got so happy, beyond words.”
Some might be moved to tears by her act of generosity, after she took first place in the 11th-12th grade division of the city of Grand Rapids’ Rosa Parks Essay Contest. Held every other year, the contest bestows awards of $200 to $500 for Kent County middle and high school students’ essays.
Writing about Parks, the legendary civil rights activist who famously refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, deepened Pearl’s concern for the homeless people she’d often seen on the streets and sleeping under bridges. Her research led her to discover there are millions of homeless single parents with children in America, and nearly 1,000 homeless in Grand Rapids.
Reflecting on what Parks had done for civil rights, Pearl realized she could make a difference in reducing homelessness. In her essay, “Impacting America … My Way,” she wrote of her desire to one day found a comprehensive center to help homeless people “of all ages, gender, sexuality and race” with shelter, job training and more. It would be called “Heart of Help.”
Giving after Receiving
She was stunned when she received a letter informing her essay had won -- especially since she thought she had turned it in late for an AP English class assignment. Thinking about her winnings, so close to Christmas, took her mind back to those people on the street.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be homeless, but I know what it feels like to get things that I don’t want,” Pearl said. “So I can just imagine how homeless people feel to not have stuff that they need.”
She resolved to give them some of what they need, thanks to what she had received. Innovation Central Principal Mark Frost called it “unbelievably selfless.”
“I can’t imagine myself doing it when I was in high school,” Frost said. “And I can’t imagine a whole lot more kids doing it – or people in general.”
Pearl went to Dollar General, bought gift bags and socks, juice, snacks and cough drops to fill them. It would have been easy to donate them to a homeless shelter. Pearl took another route.
“I thought it would be nice to let them know people were actually thinking about them,” she said. “So I wanted to do it in person.”
A Christmas Eve Journey
After learning from a church minister there were homeless camps by the railroad tracks not too far from her West Side home, Pearl went there on Christmas Eve with her mother, Barbara, and her older sister Christina. They trudged a long way through knee-deep snow. They didn’t find anyone, but knew people were out there at other times.
“We were complaining the whole time, walking through this snow,” she said with a quiet chuckle. “These people, they do this on a regular basis, like every single day -- walk back and forth on these tracks, sleep in the snow.”
Undeterred, they went downtown. They did find people at Heartside Park and handed out about a dozen bags there. They gave out the rest at Veterans Memorial Park and Mel Trotter Ministries. Two of the grateful recipients were a boy of about 9 and his father.
Then she returned to her home, where on Christmas morning her family opened presents she had bought with the remainder of her winnings.
She did buy one thing for herself: a pair of pajamas.
Impacting America.. My Way - When I think about Rosa Parks and what she did, or how she impacted America, I begin to think of ways that I could possibly be an impacting person and be influential for people today. One thing that I think of, when talking about influencing, is coming up with an idea to help those that don't a have a place to call home. Rosa Parks was a lady, in the mid-1950's, that stood her ground in something that she thought was right, and it really made a difference. Read All of Pearl McFall's essay