Initiative explains poverty to students in simplest terms

by Jessica Langdon

LEAWOOD — A little Dixie cup taught a big lesson to children here at St. Michael the Archangel School, when each student received a cup filled with more — or less — snack food.

Teacher Holly Nelson heard one student, upon receiving his cup, draw in a quick breath and say, “I don’t have as much in mine.”

“Without a second thought,” recalled Nelson, “a kid said, ‘Here, take half of mine.’”

The hands-on lesson was designed to show the students what poverty looks like — and how many people live at or below that line.

A week later, the whole school was sharing donations of food with others who face poverty in their real, day-to-day lives. The students collected cans to fill a food pantry in Olathe for Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. The project’s name? “One ‘Can’ Make a Difference.”

It’s just one example of the lessons and service that go hand in hand in an all-school initiative called “Go Forth to Serve.”

Enter to learn

The school’s very building reads “Enter to learn. . . . Go forth to serve.”

True to that idea, lessons and projects engage kindergartners through eighthgraders in service.

This initiative started a couple of years ago when the school advisory council called for an increase in the amount of service the students did.

Parents Jane Rall and Karen Dehais, along with other volunteers, started thinking about what that might look like and what could really make this project Catholic. They examined why, exactly, the Catholic faith calls people to serve and what service-specific lessons the Bible holds.

They tried the initiative on a smaller scale during the 2010-2011 school year, putting it into action in the fourth grade.

“They were already visiting Harvesters, so it seemed like a good place to start,” said Rall.

The fourth-grade program was kicked off in the fall of 2010 with a visit from Jan Lewis, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.

Students also heard from Sister Berta Sailer of Operation Breakthrough in Kansas City, Mo.

Then the fourth-graders led a project that got the whole school involved: Each grade was assigned a different birthdayparty supply. One grade brought frosting; another, cake mixes; another, candles.

The resulting 80 birthday boxes — each basically a “party in a box,” said Dehais — went to families that might not otherwise have had the means to celebrate a child’s birthday.

It was an issue fourth-graders could relate to.

“What fourth-grader does not love their birthday?” said teacher Mardi Ross.

Ross, who taught fourth grade last year, was part of the “Go Forth to Serve” pilot program and was delighted by her students’ enthusiasm for service.

This year, as a third-grade teacher, she is excited to be part of it again — this time on a school-wide scale.

A faith-filled family

Organizers decided to approach this service initiative through the school’s “faith families,” each led by a faculty member. Every entering student is assigned to a faith family, and the youngsters grow together through the years, welcoming new members as older students graduate and new students arrive.

The groups meet quarterly.

Seventh-graders were chosen to step into the leadership role. More than two dozen of them are serving as “service ambassadors.” Once a month, they give up a recess and lunch period to discuss, organize, plan and get the word out about school-wide service projects.

Service hours are a requirement for confirmation at St. Michael, said seventh-grader Alexa Gahagan, but this is something more. This is something that comes from the “goodness of your heart,” she said.

“You’re not doing it to get to your goal,” agreed seventh-grader Amy Helt. “You’re doing it for the community’s goal.”

And seventh-grader Joseph Pierce enjoys the work.

“Whenever we have a meeting,” he said, “we plan what we’re doing. . . . I like how we get to be creative with the posters, and we get to be able to write our own announcements.”

Service ambassadors make PA announcements and even stand outside on cold mornings with posters to remind everyone of the projects.

Most recently, students started bringing in the change they earned through a “Work for Change” project, which benefits families in need through the Red Bag program.

This isn’t merely asking Mom or Dad for some money to take to school. The students were earning change to donate through extra work around the house.

Eye-opening lessons

To really help the students understand the stories of the people they were serving through “Work for Change,” the faith families met beforehand and divided into smaller “families.” Each group had tokens to represent money.

Only one “family” had more than enough. As that group decided whether there was enough money for a vacation to Disneyland, others struggled to make money stretch far enough to cover food, transportation and other essentials. Their funds wouldn’t go far enough to let the kids play on sports teams, and there might have been money enough for only one child to get a birthday present.

“That’s when poverty hit, I think, for them — the little ones,” said Nelson.

Being the oldest in his mini-family, Joseph helped explain to a younger student — who wanted to use the last token they had left to buy a birthday present — that they wouldn’t have any money left.

“I think my eyes were opened a little more when I saw what other people go through,” said Joseph.

The students taught the adults some lessons in love during this exercise. Nelson and Ross both saw it happen in their faith families.

“The family that had more than enough were trying to give their money away,” said Ross. “They realized, ‘Oh my gosh, let’s help out this family.’” “That was not a scripted part of the lesson,” added Dehais.

Sharing the service

That giving spirit spreads far beyond the classroom.

Every part of the initiative begins and ends with prayer — at school, during all-school Masses and at home. There are enhanced offertories during the school Masses. And each student takes home a “table tent” with facts about what they’re learning. The cards include prayers for the families to share and opportunities for volunteering.

Ross, who has been teaching at St. Michael the Archangel for years, has loved seeing the seventh-graders take on this leadership role and their transformation into leaders.

The service ambassadors work on a number of projects throughout the year and will also organize a school-wide day of service that will take place at the end of the school year. The group has already started talking about some ideas.

The efforts so far have created quite a spark. Donations, no matter what the particular project is, have poured in.

“I thought it was cool how many people remembered just because of faith family and the little cards they got,” said Amy.

The seventh-grade service ambassadors also know these lessons aren’t staying within the walls of the school.

“I think it’s also neat in faith families, you’re explaining something to a little kid,” said Amy. “And they each go to their families, and they give them the little cards. They can grow off of that, too, so it spreads everywhere.”

And through this initiative, which brings together teachers, parents and students, the school is living up to the mission at St. Michael the Archangel to “live, love, learn and go forth to serve like Jesus.”

“It’s like a candle that’s lit and you light someone else’s candle,” said Alexa.

“And they light the other person’s,” she added, “and it goes on and on.”

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