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, NorthJersey.com 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.