Growing up on a farm in Mississippi, Sarah Lewis’ family didn’t have money for anything extravagant like a gingerbread house, but there were always sweets for Christmas.
“In our basket, we always had a big stick of peppermint candy,” she remembers.
Homeland Center residents relived the joys of holidays past when students from The Nativity School of Harrisburg arrived to help them decorate gingerbread houses. Students from the nearby Harrisburg middle school have been coming to Homeland for many years, visiting with residents and joining them in bingo.
On this Tuesday afternoon, though, they adorned gingerbread houses with icing, gumdrops, candy canes, and M&Ms. Their creations will enter their school’s gingerbread house contest, competing among other works submitted by the school’s friends and donors.
The weekly visits to Homeland give students a chance “to give back,” said Nativity School Science Teacher Vernal Simms. The kids may be “hellions outside,” but they are always well-behaved at Homeland, he said.
“They’re giving back to people,” he said. “They like the residents and enjoy coming.”
The boys like visiting so much that two seventh graders – Ty’mir Wilkerson and Anthony Lester -- asked to join the group of sixth graders coming to Homeland on this day, Vernal noted.
“It’s fun,” said Anthony. “It shows how you can come and help people.” He likes to help his mom on his own, too, cooking and cleaning around the house.
Ty’mir said he likes “giving back to the older folks for everything they did and everything they gave to us when we were young.”
The Nativity School originated when its founders saw a need for a prep school that could start city boys on a pathway to top high schools and colleges, Simms said. After students graduate from eighth grade, scholarships and tuition assistance is available for those attending private and parochial high schools around the region. Some students choose to attend competitive public high schools dedicated to science and technology or the arts.
Sixth grader Yasir Williams likes meeting the Homeland residents.
“They’re very nice,” he said. “They’re caring. They keep you occupied if you want to take your mind off something.”
Yasir’s classmate Jah’mere Belcher, who plays on The Nativity School’s flag football team, was visiting Homeland for the second time. The residents, he said, are “very nice, very caring, very easy to deal with.”
While residents and boys worked together to decorate gingerbread houses, a debate broke out about whether an animal cracker was a camel or not. The boys squeezed frosting from icing bags to put snow on roofs.
“The boys are enjoying it,” said resident Janet Kepler.
“They’re having a good time,” agreed resident Gloria Walters, a former member of Homeland’s Board of Managers. “That’s what counts.”
Gloria didn’t make gingerbread houses as a kid, but there was always “plenty to eat” during the holidays. She recalled family gatherings after she and her siblings were grown.
“The family would come home, and we’d make a big meal,” she said. “I think it made my mom happy that the kids all came home.”
The residents and boys formed bonds as they built their gingerbread houses. Resident Dolores Soles held the hand of Yasir Williams, saying, “I like this boy.” A new Homeland resident, Terry Hayes, called the visitors “a bunch of nice boys.”
“They do good work,” he said. “They’re very organized. “They work well together and have fun together.”
As the gingerbread house-decorating session ended, Terry left the Diner, Homeland’s unique 1950s-style eatery. The boys had put on their coats and were leaving behind him.
“Nice working with you,” he said to one of the boys.
“Bye, Mr. Terry,” the Nativity School student said. “Nice working with you, too.”