One school’s gift to another lifts spirits after Hurricane Irma

Students at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Clifton, NJ, are learning what it’s like to help others in need, a lesson on character catalyzed by a connection with a Florida school ravaged by Hurricane Irma.

Veteran Wilson teacher Fran Chiarelli learned about the plight of Pinecrest Elementary School in Immokalee, Fla. through Cindy Reinhardt Gerber, a Pinecrest teacher who worked with Chiarelli at a school in Clifton years ago, reports.

In early September, Hurricane Irma ravaged the Immokalee community, where 99 percent of the mostly migrant community lives in extreme poverty. The storm decimated trailers and wiped out the local tomato crop families in the area rely on to survive.

Pinecrest lost supplies, and local families lost their homes, clothes, and jobs in the storm.

Chiarelli relayed the situation to Woodrow Wilson Principal Maria Romeo, and the two organized a two-week fundraising drive that involved the entire school community, which also includes a high percentage of low income students.

“Even though we have many disadvantaged children right here in Clifton, they were able to give of themselves and realize the importance of helping other people,” Chiarelli told North Jersey.

Romeo said the experience is tied in with the district’s focus on character education by giving students the opportunity to learn empathy.

“A disadvantaged student here may live in an apartment with a roof over their heads,” she said, while kids in Immokalee are struggling with life in “the hull of a trailer.”

“It was a good opportunity for them to understand poverty on a completely different level,” Romeo said.

Woodrow Wilson students, parents and staff, baked and sold their goods, while students also raised money through class “penny wars”—a competition to collect the most change. After two weeks, the school raised nearly $10,000 to help Pinecrest buy cots for the community, bags of food for families, and other essentials.

Pinecrest Principal Susan Jordan told North Jersey the donation was by far the biggest the community received in the wake of Hurricane Irma, though other local communities also contributed to Immokalee’s recovery.

“It gives us a level of comfort so we can do what we want to do and what we need to do and know it will actually happen,” Jordan said.

That type of gratitude is what philosopher Laurence M. Thomas describes as “the most basic sentiment of interpersonal interaction.”

“There is no greater sign a people are socially invisible than that they not be seen as meriting gratitude for the good that they do on behalf of others,” Thomas wrote in The Hedgehog Review, a publication of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. “When a person acts with good will towards another, then she or he is acknowledging that the other has moral value. Gratitude is a natural response to being so treated.”

The gracious donation from Woodrow Wilson students also belies concerns about America’s focus on materialism that dates back to observations by French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville in 1833.

Tocqueville worried that “America was devolving into a nation of self-sufficient Robinson Crusoes,” researchers Arlie Hoschild and Sarah Garrett wrote in The Hedgehog Review. “If we are too individualistic, if we devalue moral sentiments, Tocqueville thought, our attention will then turn to materialism. Speaking of Americans in 1833, he observed that the individual arising from their relative equality ‘lays open the soul to an inordinate love of material gratification.’”

Tocqueville was concerned that Americans would become obsessed with the material, and focus less on virtues like gratitude and empathy that strengthen communities.

The Florida donation proves students in New Jersey understand gratitude and generosity, but it also goes beyond that to help to build up both communities through service to others.

Resources on helping others, like “How Would You Help?” from the Jubilee Centre, can help students understand ways they can give back to their communities.

Lexington Crew builds moral character through service

Students at South Carolina’s Meadow Glen Middle School are learning the true meaning of good character through a “Crew” program designed to connect them with the community through meaningful service projects.

The effort has not only helped to rebuild the community after devastating floods in 2015, but also to develop an ethic of service among students that will undoubtedly follow them throughout life.

James Davison Hunter, an acclaimed sociologist and founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, writes in The Tragedy of Moral Education:

No one has ever believed in kindness or honesty without understanding them in the concrete circumstances of a moral culture embedded in a moral community . . . It is easy to affirm a general idea of kindness, but quite another to believe that other people are intrinsically worth being treated kindly, and that because of that belief, one has an obligation to actually treat them kindly. The first is a much more flexible and convenient morality than the second, and it is one that is easier to ignore when the cost of holding it rises.

The perspective rings true at Meadow Glen Middle School, which opened in 2012 with a focus on building a school culture that promotes positive relationships through a Crew program that’s played a major role in student success, both academically and personally.

Students in grades six through eight meet three to five times a week in small groups to build relationships, monitor academic progress, and focus on character development, but the program has developed into something well beyond those goals.

“Our initial version of Crew recognized service and leadership as an important part of building character,” the school’s Faculty Crew wrote in a blog for Education Week. “But it took time, practice, and ultimately a natural disaster for our students to understand what the motto of Crew—We Are Crew, not passengers—really means.”

The program began with students working together with hands-on team-building exercises, followed by discussions so “students got to know the strengths and vulnerabilities of other members of their crew.

“They learned to trust each other, to fail together, and to try again,” the Faculty Crew wrote.

“The projects we took on in the first years, jointly led by Crew leaders and students, taught us a lot about organizing people, gathering resources, and working with clear purpose and coordination. We also learned how to interview experts, form partnerships in the community, and to rehearse presentations designed to persuade decision makers.”

But it was tropical storm Joaquin in October 2015—an “all-hands-on-deck moment”—that transformed the school’s culture from “service projects to an ethic of service,” according to school officials.

Many Lexington families lost most of their belongings, roads were washed out, and folks poured into local shelters and food banks.

Meadow Glen students sprang into action.

“Over the next several weeks, students helped remove damaged items from homes, participated in donation drives, worked in food shelters, organized donated goods, ripped up damaged floors and carpets, helped families move into new homes, and assisted in church efforts to get needed supplies to those in need,” faculty wrote.

One of the 8th-grade Crews also initiated a local road race to raise funds for flood victims. The students designed the race with cooperation from school and community officials, sought sponsorships from local businesses, and collaborated with classmates to promote the event.

And the event was a success for students and those in need.

“The Crew that led the initiative truly became engaged in the process and in their leadership roles. Teachers noted that the process changed how they treated their academic coursework and their behavior in the classroom,” Education Week reports.

“I listened more and cared more about schoolwork, because teachers were also invested in supporting us with the race,” said Cade, a Meadow Glen 8th-grader.

The experience also prepared students to extend their reach beyond Lexington when Hurricane Harvey flooded Texas this school year. Crews coordinated with a local transportation company to send two pallets of supplies to flood victims in Texas, though the student-led “Pack the Pallet” campaign ultimately collected enough food and supplies to send 14 pallets to the Houston Food Bank, according to the news site.

Sixth-grader Adyson described the impact the Pack the Pallet campaign had on her and her classmates.

“Seeing that we made a difference makes me want to do more service,” she said. “Service helps me be a better person and citizen (because it) brings me back to reality (and) makes me a better student in the classroom.

“You do something nice and it puts you in a good place mentally for your classes,” she said. “And, I think I treat others better and am more aware of others and bringing others into the conversation.”

The kind of self-sacrificing kindness and generosity described by Hunter seem to be on full display at Meadow Glen, and establishing those habits early will play a critical role in helping students to become more spontaneous and personal in later years.

And while the Crew program is an excellent way to instill generosity in students, resources from the Jubilee Centre and others offer ways schools can start small to build a similar sense of purpose and good character.