Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
An early candidate for the feel-good urban story of the year.
Blake Ansari is only six-years-old, but he's already done something to make his city better.
The first-grader, who attends the Metropolitan Montessori School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, had been thinking this winter about other kids in his city, kids who didn’t have the kind of life he has. Homeless kids.
Late last year, Blake started to understand that some children in New York City didn’t have a place to live, and were sleeping with their families in shelters or on the streets. There are a lot of homeless kids in New York these days, about 22,000 of them by most recent count, more than at any time since the Great Depression. And the number has been going up.
Blake’s father, Nuri Ansari, works developing programs for the homeless and the formerly incarcerated. To help Blake understand the issue better, his mother, Starita Boyce Ansari, showed him the multipart New York Times story about a homeless girl named Dasani that came out in early December. She says her son was immediately concerned about the well-being of kids living in substandard shelters.
One thing about these children’s lives was especially troubling. “That means they don’t have a library,” Blake said to his mother.
He wanted to give them one.
It was too late to make the gift for Christmas or Kwanzaa, but Starita Ansari started making some phone calls to see if maybe something could be done in time for Valentine’s Day. She had trouble finding a shelter that would take the donations, but with some help from the office of Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer, the Ansaris located the PATH emergency family shelter in the Bronx, which said it would be happy to accept.
And then Blake started gathering books. Some came from his classmates. About 200 were donated by family friend Bob Gore. And even more were collected by the office of city councilmember Helen Rosenthal from neighbors of Blake’s school on the Upper West Side, including the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.
Altogether, the drive netted some 600 books, which will be given out to children who go through the intake process at PATH and be theirs to keep. Blake and his family took the books to PATH in time for Valentine’s Day. He was happy, but he still wants to do more, maybe to build a real library. His mother says he put it this way: "When you listen to the community, learn from the community, and help the community, you connect to your best self."
Starita Ansari says she wants her son’s book drive to raise awareness of the severity of the homeless problem in the United States, where nearly 1.2 million school-age children were homeless in 2011, the latest year for which complete numbers are available. She also wants it to serve as a call to action. “Homeless children are America’s black eye, and America doesn’t want to talk about it,” she says. “If a 6-year-old can respond to the education needs of homeless children, then why can’t we as adults?”