By Carol Lucas
Recently I happened upon an article which highlighted the efforts of three high school students in Texas. It seems that a custodian in their school was still working at 80 years of age because he could not afford to retire.
When the kids learned of this, they went into action and set up a Go Fund Me account for “Mr. James.” In the first 12 hours, they raised $10,000, and by the end of the final week, that figure had climbed to more than $230,000.
Several things came to mind, and I’ll get the negative out of the way first. I have ambivalent feelings about the whole “Go Fund Me” trend. It seems to be the first option of many these days, and generally speaking, it is a bit off-putting. I can hear my friends who know my liberal leanings gasp and shake their heads. So that’s out of the way. Now to the positive.
Two additional aspects struck me as I read this: first, my belief that there are more good people than bad in this world was reaffirmed, and second, never underestimate the power of kids when they are introduced to a cause about which they become passionate. It was that second thought that moved me to recall a part of my teaching career that was so meaningful and rewarding.
In 1988, I was given the opportunity to coordinate a community service learning program for high school students, Grades 9 through 12. The school board approved a mandate that required each student to accrue 120 hours of service over the course of four years. My schedule included teaching three classes of English in the morning, and researching/providing service opportunities for students during the rest of my day.
Part of my job was to write grants so that the kids had seed money to underwrite any costs associated with the projects. And so I began a phase of my career that would provide amazing insight to what kids can do when given an opportunity to lend hands-on help for those in need.
To write this article is a trip down memory lane, one so delightful and so inspiring that I find myself pausing for the many rekindled emotions that hit me. Let me share with you a small portion of what “my kids” accomplished over the course of the nine years I spent with them in this venue. The best way to do so is to explain some of the many projects they created.
Perhaps the most memorable was our annual Teddy Bear Holiday. I contacted an organization that sheltered mothers and their children from domestic abuse to see if we could secure the names of the children and a Christmas wish list for each. Of course, confidentiality was of primary importance, and first names only were used. Then I called together representatives from each extra-curricular activity: clubs, athletic groups, musical groups, and explained what we hoped to accomplish. Each group would receive information that included name, gender, and the child’s wish list (limited to two gifts). The representatives were to return to their club or activity to convey this information, including the idea that a teddy bear was to be part of the gifting. This is where the project took on a whole new aspect. Unbeknownst to me, the kids communicated with one another and decided the bears should reflect them and their activity. So bears with a cheerleader’s outfit, a football helmet, or one playing a band instrument – you get the idea – became the order of the day. When all of these came together the day of the assembly, I was flabbergasted! They truly went the extra mile to be sure their bear was “special.”
As the years went on, the bear “outfits” became more elaborate, and my heart became larger. One year, on the day before the assembly, the kids brought all the bears to my classroom, and each occupied a seat. You can imagine the look on the custodian’s face when he came in to clean my room. I could hardly keep from laughing when I told him I was holding class after school.
On the day of the assembly, a representative of the organization came to accept the donations. This assembly was a major school event, and many tears were shed – those of laughter as well as those of compassion. A student representing each group came to the stage to present the gifts AND the bear. Imagine, if you will, a big, muscular football player carrying a helmeted teddy bear onto the stage, and you get a sense of the gathering in the auditorium. When asked to speak the first year, I could only stand there and weep. Of course, my emotions had been heightened earlier in the day when my husband delivered a sweatshirt with a teddy bear on the back, over which was inscribed “Mama Bear.”
We had other projects equally inspiring. The Senior Citizen’s Prom comes to mind. Every student who signed on to this project knew, short of illness, he/she had to attend the dance. The students planned the entire thing. They solicited local florists for corsages, researched for a band playing Forties music, negotiated with the cafeteria service to provide dinner before the dance, and decorated the gym the afternoon of the Prom.
We always had at least 75 senior citizens attend, and the best part was watching the kids dance with them. Make no mistake, the senior citizens took the opportunity to show the kids their dance steps as well. It was an evening of intergenerational compatibility, and one of the elderly women was heard saying, “This night was worth my school taxes.”
I engaged kids in tutoring elementary students. We also raked leaves on many fall Saturdays for our seniors. And of course, there were those kids who used the program as a tool for career exploration, volunteering at local hospitals and animal facilities. The limits were set only by their own creativity, and each placement site had to be green-lighted by me, so no one was gaining credit for something that didn’t fit the parameters of service.
One of the issues I had to confront was that of disgruntled parents who wanted to challenge the oxymoron of “mandated” volunteerism. Ironically, this criticism came from parents of the so-called gifted students. However, I quickly found the answer to this objection by pointing out that colleges looked very favorably upon transcripts that included volunteering.
One student returned during his freshman year of college to tell me that in orientation, they had been told they had to perform 10 hours of service. He started to laugh aloud, and the speaker stopped and asked why that was funny. The boy stood and told him that he had a high school graduation mandate of 120 hours. The presenter then asked the boy to come see him at the end of the orientation. I often told that story to those upset parents, and there was little negative response after that.
You can see why I was drawn to the story of those students in Texas. In the 26 years that I have been retired from teaching, I had little reason to know whether or not such programs still exist in our schools. What I still remember is this: give a group of students the opportunity to volunteer, and they will pick up the challenge and produce results beyond your expectations.
Best of all, what they gain in return does not have a price tag. As one sophomore boy who tutored in an elementary school wrote in his journal after being given a go-away party and a large card signed by all the children, “I never thought so many people would like me at one time.” More tears from me.
Carol Lucas is a retired high school teacher and a Lady’s Island resident. She is the author of the recently published “A Breath Away: One Woman’s Journey Through Widowhood.”