Over the last several months, 10 Maine middle schools, and nearly 700 Maine students, have worked to solve pressing issues in their communities and the world as part of the first annual Samantha Smith Challenge.

Participating students identified a concerning issue, researched it to the point where they could advocate for a solution, and then found ways to turn their advocacy research into action by talking to community leaders, writing OpEds, giving talks and making videos.

At J. A. Leonard Middle School in Old Town, teachers Gert Nesin and Jay Meigs McDonald oversaw 39 eighth-grade students who studied the issue of poverty. Below, you can see what they learned, how they worked with their community, and their ideas for solutions.

The Samantha Smith Challenge was named after the Maine middle school student who famously inspired a dialogue about peace between the USSR and the U.S. during the Cold War. It was created by Americans Who Tell the Truth and the Maine Association for Middle Level Education, with a goal to promote civic engagement.

The issue: Poverty

The question: What is it like to be in poverty and what can we do about it?

Community partners and stakeholders: Penquis CAP, Former Peace Corps Workers, Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, Manna Ministries, Seeds of Hope, Old Town Police Department, and Crossroads Food Pantry.

Facts learned:

— People in poverty are: the same as everyone else; not to blame; not more likely than the general population to be alcoholics, drug addicts, or criminals; and sometimes made villains and/or scapegoats.

— Some people have way more than they need (especially the top 1 percent), and it squeezes what’s left for the rest of us.

— People in poverty have a different perspective about food, education, entertainment — more survival than choice.

— Poverty looks different internationally.

Plan of action:

— Insulate a house in the community

— Sort, organize, and/or distribute food at Manna and Seeds of Hope

— Cook and serve lunch at Bangor Area Homeless Shelter

— Create a newspaper about poverty and other community issues

— Write letters to editors, legislators, and governor

Project results:

— Students completed all the above activities, which helped the community.

— Students gained a better understanding about poverty and became advocates for people in poverty.

— Students learned not to judge, especially without all the information.

— Students gained empathy for others.

— Students learned they can make a difference.

Student quotations about poverty:

— “I learned how important it is to help people living in poverty, and how serious it is.  Also, I learned that stereotypes needed to be broken, and how in my eyes they were broken.”

— “Just by looking at someone, it doesn’t say who they truly are.”

“Poverty isn’t just one thing. Poverty has many faces, many causes, and many solutions.”

— “Not only adults can help with poverty. Students can, too.”

— “People in poverty are pretty much just like regular people, just without money.”

Quotations about what students learned:

— “I can help people in poverty and that I can make a difference.”

— “I am more caring than I thought.”

— “I felt honored to be helping people and made me feel good as a person.”

— “I learned that I care about people in poverty, and ending poverty a lot more than I thought.”

— “How easy it is to make a difference in someone’s life.”

— “I learned to not judge anybody by how they look…and that I do judge people sometimes. But I need to stop because I don’t know what they are going through or who they are.”

— “I always have room to grow. I had thought about poverty as something very other than myself, something that didn’t really affect me. Turns out it’s not, and the kind of thinking I used to have was actually part of the problem because it prevented us from finding solutions.”

— “It is okay to help people that need it, without thinking you’re doing the right thing or being judged for wanting to help with people who need it.”

— “I actually want to help people in poverty and that a lot of these people are like me.”

— “These people are good people. That’s the simple truth of it all.”

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...