The Most Valuable Lessons

Saint Maria

With regard to education, perhaps the most critical error I hear people make — school administrators, teachers, students, parents, the general public, and politicians (especially politicians) — is the acceptance of a definition of learning that is far too narrow. In many cases, learning is somehow limited to an association with “school” (which is associated with a physical space) and it is typically restricted to curriculum — reading, writing, math, science, etc. This assumption leads to a lot of problems (including inequitable and mind numbing policies).

I could easily write an entire post on the issues that arise from a narrow definition of learning, but I will save that for another day. This post is about an example of learning that I believe is every bit as essential as anything you will find in standards, or on a curriculum map. It is about modeling sincere care and concern for others (empathy) through works of kindness and giving.

The hero of my story today is Maria (I sometimes refer to her as Saint Maria). Maria is the parent liaison at our school. I challenge you to find a more patient, caring, and selfless person. I am sure they exist, but Maria is at the top of my list.

My goal at our school has always been that we are viewed as a true community school. Not just a place where families send their children to learn, but a place that invests not only in our kids, but in our neighborhood. I believe that families should have the opportunity to choose where their kids attend school, but I want them to choose Willis. Not because we are perfect — we are not. Not just because of academics. Not only because we are in the neighborhood. But, because they know we care about our kids, our families, and our community.

Several years ago, I enlisted Maria’s help to begin a Community Resource Room at our school. I wanted a place where our families could come for help — for their Willis students, for their kids at other schools, for their family, or for their neighbor. Maria went to work and created exactly what we needed. Most importantly, she has developed the relationships with our families that are critical to building trust and creating a safe space. She models empathy, kindness, gratitude and genuine concern. Kids drop by her room if they are in need of school supplies, a snack, or a bag of food for the weekend. Parents call if they need a little help to get by for the month, if their kids need clothing or shoes, or if they need blankets or a bed. Maria takes every request to heart, and works with available resources and community partners to make sure the needs are met.

Then came the pandemic.

Schools closed. Businesses shut down. People lost jobs. And suddenly, we were faced with a community that was in desperate need of support.

After talking it over with Maria, we determined that the most realistic (and critical) need we could help address was food insecurity. We began with what we thought was a reasonable goal. During the crisis, we would distribute forty food boxes a week to families in need. These food boxes would include staples — rice, pasta, beans, bread and/or tortillas, tuna, soups, water, Gatorade, cleaning supplies, etc. About three weeks into our distribution (as it became evident that the pandemic was not a short-term issue), we realized the need was going to be even greater than we anticipated. Maria talked to me about increasing the number of food boxes we were distributing. In speaking with our families, she was getting more requests and hearing more stories of desperation. I had some concerns about our ability to sustain the food box distribution, let alone address the increase in need.

But, not to be deterred, Maria began working through some of her connections — local churches and food banks. We spoke with community partners who had assisted our school before the pandemic. And then, in addition to our weekly food box distribution, we began a weekly donation collection.

Our community showed up in a BIG way.

Each week, Maria put together a needs list and we published it via social media. And every week, we had between fifty and one-hundred people drop off donations. Some brought carloads of food and supplies. Others came every week with two or three grocery bags filled with items from our list. We even had one of our families ride their bikes to our school — each member of the family carrying a backpack filled with supplies. People donated money to a PayPal account and volunteers — teachers and community members went shopping for us.

One Day of Donations

Every week, a small army of volunteers (staff members, community members, and students) would show up to help us assemble the food boxes. Maria had this down to a science. We collected on Tuesdays, packed boxes on Wednesday’s and Thursday’s and distributed food and supplies on Thursday evenings. Every week, Maria would call the families to check-in on them and assess need. Some needed a box each week, others came every two weeks. When some of our families began suffering with COVID, Maria made note of it and we would purchase Tylenol, cough medicine, throat lozenges, and Pedialyte or Gatorade for these families. Our volunteers would deliver boxes to these families — calling ahead and leaving the boxes at the front door.

Food distribution Thursday’s became a time of community. A time of celebration. Our volunteers –under the direction of Maria — would carefully load boxes of food and supplies into vehicles as they arrived at their designated pick-up time. Dr. Nelson (a volunteer school psychologist) was there every Thursday (even through blistering summer evenings) where he sat in the back of his mini-van and played music, taking my Johnny Cash and U2 requests. There was a lot of teamwork, a lot of laughter, and occasionally tears of empathy as we listened to stories of need and gratitude.

With the help of our community we were able to distribute between eighty and one-hundred food boxes every week. Over the course of the school closure — March through September — we distributed over 1200 boxes of food and countless other supplies and materials. Our staff witnessed this. Our families witnessed this. Volunteers witnessed this. And most important, our students witnessed this.

We are still serving our community through our resource room. Maria is still in contact with our families to assess need. In partnership with Matthew’s Crossing Food Bank she works to ensure that our students have the opportunity to take home weekend food bags — a little extra push to help our families cope with the trials of the pandemic.

But, here is the best part — and the reason I spoke about learning in the first two paragraphs of this post. We now have students who are volunteering with Maria to support the needs of our neighborhood. They have witnessed the good that has been done (some have even been recipients) and now they have the opportunity to give back and make a difference in their school community. Our “Volunteer of the Year” is a former Willis student — Maritza — who walks from her home to Willis (over a mile) several times a week to help Maria in the resource room.

Our kids are learning organizational skills, how to demonstrate initiative, what it means to serve, and how to value and respect others. By working in the community resource room they begin to understand that there is always more to a person than meets they eye and that empathy for others is an essential life skill.

There are very few things that can empower a student more than the opportunity to share a kindness and make a difference in the life of another. These are the most valuable of lessons.

Our Community Resource Room has become a place of learning, and the knowledge and skills that it produces are will be exponentially more valuable than anything learned in a textbook.

Thank you Maria. Thank you community partners. Thank you volunteers. And, thank you students!

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