In the beginning, Riverdale High School agriculture teacher Kassie Dewey simply wanted to teach her students about the challenges of raising turkeys as part of a Future Farmers of America project.
But the big lesson came when students delivered the turkey meat in November to Fresno's Poverello House — encountering big-city poverty and homelessness, some for the first time.
"The drive there was an eye-opener," said junior Destinee Leonardo, 16. "You see all these forts everywhere, people with barely any clothes when it's freezing."
Dewey, a first-year teacher, proposed the turkey project to have her students learn about biosecurity and the poultry industry. But she also wanted to encourage a sense of community involvement and expose them to the real-world problem of homelessness.
About 70 students taking animal science and veterinary science classes as part of the Future Farmers of America raised 10 turkeys in a barn at the school starting in late September. Students got the chance to study the turkeys' behavior, calculate the appropriate amounts of food and water, and learn how to sanitize the barn.
"It's surprising — I didn't think they would like it as much as they did," Dewey said. "When you give them the opportunity to get outside of the classroom and learn in a practical way, they really excel."
The biggest surprise came when it was time to deliver the turkey meat, squash and other donations, including bags of clothing, to the Poverello House.
Dewey was hoping she would fill two vans with 25 students. More than 40 showed up.
"I was ecstatic. I didn't think high school kids would be that into it," she said. "But I had more kids show up than I had room for."
The two full vans didn't stop senior Tristan Rollin, 17, from serving dinner to the homeless.
"I drove on my own to help out," he said. "My brother and some other kids had never been there before. It really opened their eyes."
Students said the experience of volunteering allowed them to see an unfamiliar reality.
"When I saw little kids — 5 years old — come in for dinner, it was shocking," said Leonardo, the Riverdale High junior. "Not having everything we have and being that age — it showed me to appreciate everything I have in life."
Classmates shared their experiences during the ride back, all agreeing it was something they wanted to do every year from now on.
"The kids got to listen to (the homeless people's) stories. It made them human to it," Dewey said. "That was my proudest teacher moment."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6659, firstname.lastname@example.org or @DianaT_Aguilera.