At Christmastime, innundated with thoughts of material possessions, the last thing on most children's minds is the plight of homeless families. But retired Haigh Elementary special education teacher and author Sharon Ottenbreit aims to change that - not just during the holidays, but at all times of year.
In March, Ottenbreit published "Only One Toy Allowed," a children's book introducing the concept of homelessness to young readers. Written through the eyes of a teddy bear, the story unfolds as the toy's owner, Katie, leaves home with her mother to seek refuge in a homeless shelter. Once there, Katie learns she is only able to keep one toy, as there is not enough room in the shelter for children to have more than one toy each. Katie chooses to leave behind the bear instead of a doll from her grandmother.
Heartening and sad, the book is written to be readily understandable for children, informing them about what it means to become homeless - an important lesson to remember during a time when presents abound.
All proceeds from the book's sales and speaking engagements are donated to three homeless shelters serving metro Detroit: the Coalition on Temporary Shelter, Cass Community Social Services and South Oakland Shelter. Ottenbreit said that hundreds of dollars have been donated to each shelter so far this year.
Shelter organizations recognize the book for its value as a voice for the homeless and for financial support.
"Sharon's story is remarkable because it explains that homeless children lose more than their house," explained Rev. Faith Fowler, executive director of Cass Community Social Services. "They are without their possessions, privacy, security and even their parents are unable to protect them. It makes the trauma of it all understandable.
"The fact that 'Only One Toy Allowed' also raises funds to assist children in shelters is a tremendous bonus."
From Ottenbreit's point of view, telling the story to children is important not only because she is a retired teacher, but also because 40 percent of the population in homeless shelters is families with young children, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Ottenbreit said she is dedicated to helping the homeless, and this book is one avenue for her to elevate the voice of awareness. It's a goal she's been reaching over and over since the book's launch.
Ottenbreit typically presents to schools, and her visit includes a PowerPoint presentation about the book, a six-step educational process describing how she wrote the book and a book reading and signing opportunity as well. Occasionally, illustrator Leslie Walden accompanies Ottenbreit for the school presentations and describes how he took actual photos from Detroit and, through computer software, adjusted them into animated illustrations.
Children who learn about homelessness are inspired to help, something that Ottenbreit anticipated when she suggested a few fundraising tips in the back of the book, including hosting Used Toy Sales at schools. She states that "What can I do to help?" is the most common reaction from children who hear her speak about or read the book.
Haigh Elementary was the first engagement, the same school from which Ottenbreit retired last year. During that presentation and book signing, more than $600 was raised to benefit homeless shelters.
Teachers and administrators, of course, were thrilled.
"Sharon Ottenbreit's "Only One Toy Allowed" was a wonderful book to read to my fourth grade class," praised Haigh teacher Tracy Lahooti. "I was looking for a way to get the students connected to our community with a service project. Her book opened our eyes to the homelessness problem and how it affects children. Students were moved and motivated to make a difference.
"The book is compassionate and easily understood by even the youngest of children."
Currently, Ottenbreit has two scheduled upcoming engagements and is seeking more presentation opportunities, especially in schools. In March, she is scheduled once again at Haigh Elementary and in April for a Literary Tea in Farmington Hills. She also hopes to find a publisher to help grow the book's reach and sales.
A self-published book, "Only One Toy Allowed" is available on Amazon.com for $15.99. Learn more about the book and its author by visiting www.onlyonetoyallowed.com.