Empowering children who live in homeless shelters

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Story highlights

  • When Jennifer Cox began teaching, among her students were children who lived in homeless shelters
  • Cox recognized their unique challenges, and created a program to address them
  • Empower4Life provides health education, fitness activities and nutritious food to children in shelters

Fallston, Maryland (CNN)Jennifer Cox began teaching at an under-performing school near Baltimore in 2005.

Within the first two years, she noticed a common thread among many of her students who were struggling the most: They were living in homeless shelters.
"A lot of these kids were disengaged," Cox said. "They don't feel they're deserving or worthy of being successful. It broke my heart."
    CNN Hero Jennifer Cox
    According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 100,000 children in the country live in homeless shelters.
    After spending time volunteering at a local family shelter, Cox observed that the services were focused on the adults. The children's needs were largely ignored.
    "Kids at the shelter didn't have enough space to really be kids," she said. "They were living in stressful environments, eating unhealthy food, and I felt they were missing a lot of the components crucial to healthy development."
    So, in 2015, Cox founded Empower 410 Inc. Also known as Empower4Life, the nonprofit has provided health education, fitness activities, nutritious food and other necessities for more than 1,000 children living in Baltimore-area homeless shelters.
    "The best way to better their situation is to offer them opportunities to feel empowered," Cox said. "As we build their confidence, our hope is that they are able to see that they can pave their own path."
    CNN's Laura Klairmont spoke with Cox about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
    CNN: What are some of the obstacles facing children in homeless shelters?
    Jennifer Cox: At the shelter, they are constantly in stressful situations. They are living in cramped spaces. The security guard has to check them each and every time they enter the shelter. There's a huge sense of embarrassment; they don't want their friends to know where they're living.
    There is also a lack of privacy, and that has a huge impact on children, especially as they get older and need their own personal space to reflect on things that happen throughout the day and to take time to unwind. But for children living in a homeless shelter, there is no such thing as privacy.
    CNN Hero Jennifer Cox: Empowering for life
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      CNN Hero Jennifer Cox: Empowering for life

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    CNN Hero Jennifer Cox: Empowering for life 02:23
    CNN: How do these issues affect them on a deeper level?
    Cox: A lot of these kids are in survival mode. They're experiencing things at a very young age that most children -- most adults -- will never experience. "Where am I going to get my next meal? Am I going to have heat tonight?" They're afraid of being successful because they don't know what that looks like a lot of times. They carry these experiences with them through all aspects of their life. We see a huge correlation between homeless children and social-emotional issues, such as anger and depression.
    Kids are never going to learn in school, they're never going to be able to make good decisions and be successful, if they don't feel good about themselves. So, I wanted to develop a program that would not only reengage them in their education, but also in all aspects of their lives.
    We give the kids an opportunity to have a good time, but also teach them how to be cooperative, effectively communicate and other life skills that are important for kids to learn, that will allow them to make healthy, sound decisions.
    CNN: What activities do the children in your program engage in?
    Cox: We teach fitness activities like yoga, Zumba, barre, mindful meditation -- different sports and cooperative games that allow them to move and get some exercise and to use it as an outlet for the stressful things that are going on in their life.
    Empower4Life participant Reed, 9, lives in a Baltimore-area shelter with his mother, brother and sister
    Our health and wellness program covers many topics including self-esteem building, decision making, healthy eating, conflict resolution, and drug and alcohol prevention. These are components to help them develop self-confidence that they will carry with them into the classroom and beyond. It's also an opportunity for them to express themselves in a healthy way.
    We talk about ways that shelter life is stressful, how that can impact them as people, and then from there, what they can do to handle the situation better. They are actively looking to share their stories with people, and we provide a safe place for them to do that.
    Our goal is to set a foundation for these kids so that they do have a positive sense of self, and they then are able to achieve their goals and their dreams. I'm helping these kids realize that they are worth it.
    Want to get involved? Check out the Empower4Life website and see how to help.
    To donate to Empower4Life click the CrowdRise widget below.