Agents of Change

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Father English Community Center in Paterson, NJ.  A few weeks prior a group of students in our school had organized a toy collection for the center and I wanted to see for myself who our students were helping and to investigate if there were other ways that we, our school community, could support the families that rely on the center for basic needs.  So a friend, and fervent supporter of youth service, and I drove down to visit with the director of the center.

The Father English Community Center, not unlike many similarly-focused centers in America's impoverished, urban centers, provides its surrounding communities with many services and programs including: continuing education and language courses; a full-day pre-K program, a wide variety of social services; clothing and furniture; and a food shelter.

Carlos runs the food pantry.  He is an inspiration. He has made it his life's work to build and maintain a food pantry that provides for 1000 people per month.  This food pantry is unique.  Typical pantries function like a cafeteria line; the person in need of food walks up to a counter and is given a supply of goods, usually differentiated to specific family needs (i.e. young children).  Over the years Carlos has created a pantry that looks more like a grocery store.  Visitors walk up and down aisles and using a point system pick up products that suit their family's needs and tastes.  It is an innovative concept that values both dignity and compassion. Meet Carlos:

After visiting with Carlos I couldn't stop thinking about the extraordinary work that he was doing and how I, representing a community that is more than willing to act, can help.  I was expecting Carlos to tell me to bring more canned goods, or provide assistance stocking shelves or giving out food.  Rather, Carlos simply told me to do what I can to support the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.  The Food Bank is where Carlos orders most of the food that is given to the customers, a term preferred by Carlos, of the pantry.  The Food Bank provides pantries with a wide variety of goods at significant discounts.  

So when our school's National Junior Honor Society was considering a benefactor of our annual Student-Faculty Charity Basketball Game the Food Bank was the overwhelming favorite.  Our students raised over $1700 for the event, all of it going to the Food Bank.  I can't wait to tell Carlos.

Service is a topic that I have written about in previous posts.  I think the concept of helping others, taking care of each other, is an essential understanding that all students need to develop.  To help foster this understanding we need to provide opportunities to serve others and to recognize those that lead by example, like Carlos. And, like Marirose.

For the past three years Marirose, a student at SMS, has helped organize a separate toy drive for a group called Tilly's Kids.  Marirose, along with a group of other civic-minded and gracious students, deliver the toys to students at their schools in Newark.  For many of these students, the toys, games and books they receive may be the only gifts they gift during the holidays.  As a nominee for the 2014 Prudential Spirit of Community Award, Marirose received the following letter:
I am thankful to Marirose for allowing me to recognize her in this forum, and for answering a few of my questions about her experience serving others:

 When did you start volunteering and serving other causes?  Why?
I started volunteering when I was in fourth grade.  I was tagging along with my older brothers who were volunteering.

 I noticed that many of your teammates and friends are also volunteering-how has this affected your relationships and friendships?

It has made my friendships much closer because we have volunteering in common.  I am really happy that my friends enjoy doing this as well.

What has service taught you?
It has taught me that when people complain about how bad they have it, they don’t realize how much worse other people have it.

You have seen first-hand the impact of poverty in America-what have you learned from this exposure, about people and prosperity?
It is easy to ignore problems when you don’t know about them.  Then, when you do know you feel obligated and want to help.  For example, I know children in poverty are counting on us to deliver gifts at Christmas and I can’t let them down.

Any advice for someone who would like to begin volunteering?  How can they get started?
I would advise someone new to try a lot of different opportunities to find out what they really love.  And, if possible, start volunteering with a friend!  Pass-it-Along always has opportunities on their website. Sometimes you can find your own way to help.  I have sold crafts and cupcakes to raise money for children with brain tumors. Also, Mrs. Garagliano, my 6th grade Ancient Civilizations teacher, helped me collect toys for Christmas gifts.  She also helped to collect and hand out gently used books to children at elementary schools in Newark.

How would you like to continue to serve as your proceed in high school and beyond?
In high school, I hope to continue to make a bigger impact.  I hope to always be able to use my talents to help others.  One of my next projects is to make “Blessing Bags” to send to Ethiopia where there are five million orphans.

You received a letter from the President…what does that mean to you?
I am honored to get this recognition.  I feel like it hasn’t been a sacrifice for me to spend free time volunteering.  It has been a privilege.  I have found that I love to help people.  Some of my best memories are from these times.

Although much younger than Carlos, Marirose is also an agent of change.  And she is one of many students in our school that have taken it upon themselves to bring their community "closer to its great promise".  

Related Resources:

Pass-It-Along:  As Marirose mentioned, many volunteering opportunities for students and families.

NJ Food Bank:  How you can help