By Peggy Wuenstel – I spent the better part of an hour last week standing in front of a red kettle with a bell in my hand in front of our local drugstore. It wasn’t terribly cold when we started, but paradoxically, it was a lot warmer when we finished. The warmth of people who tucked bills or dropped coins in the kettle was palpable. I left there thinking that I had to find a way to make sure that the kids I teach understand the benefits of altruism.
Appeals are all around us this holiday season, in the mail, on-line and on the telephone. We collect food for the hungry; hats, mittens, and blankets for the cold and homeless; and toys for those children whose homes are short on holiday joy. These are wonderful projects, almost all worthy of our support, but they are also seasonal and often short-lived.
We need to help kids understand that caring about others, ourselves, and our world should be a year-round occupation. The building I work in has a different three-pronged approach to talking, teaching and taking on projects that demonstrate caring. Our first tine was caring about others, and we collected empty prescription bottles to be sent to a service organization that transports them overseas to Malawi where they are used to distribute medications in clinics in that country.
Coming in the new year is a backpack program to meet the needs of kids who rely on free or reduced meals during the school week. Some of these families are the working poor who are unable to access the wonderful food pantry that is open two mornings per week in our town. We are teaming with a community organization that supports literacy efforts to include books, magazines, and other literacy materials for these families as well. They can pick up a backpack filled with weekend breakfast and lunch items, as well as an activity to share, and then return it anonymously the next Monday. This prong, and effort to help those we know, and understanding that preserving dignity and respect are also key components of a giving heart, are lessons it seems our society as a whole needs to learn.
As Earth Day approaches this spring we are also hopeful to have our third initiative underway. Caring for the earth requires the efforts of everyone. We hope to improve students’ understanding of the role they can play in reducing waste and preserving resources. In a joint operation with our Parent/Teacher Organization and our local community wellness group, we are changing our waste collection procedures to include recycling, composting, and waste awareness. Kids will sort, deliver and see the benefits of reducing food waste, recycling, and composting and know they are caring for the earth.
But this holiday season, I find myself turning inward, hoping that what students might receive as a gift this year is the ability to care about themselves in a truly affirming way. I would love to wrap up the awareness that they need to get enough nutrition, sleep, stress reduction and fun in the choices they make about meals, leisure time and the people they interact with. I would love to fill their stockings with the motivation to care about the work they produce, the learning they accomplish, and the ways in which they ask for our help. I would layer the reliability of knowing that someone cares about them and their successes both at home and school on their holiday plates, and serve it up with a helping of feeling what it is like to truly care about and help someone else. I would help them to sweeten the meal with the understanding that selfishness is not the same thing as self-worth, and that you are never richer than when you can give away some of yourself to others. Teachers get this gift on a regular basis, and I am blessed to work with men and women who demonstrate this kind of caring and generosity.
We live in a society that measures value by what we have and what we produce. If we listen to the media and watch the advertisement that swirl around us, we might miss a more fundamental measure. We are only as strong, as safe, and as wealthy as the most struggling among us. We are only as smart, as accomplished, or as healthy as those who need the most assistance. We are only as happy, secure, and ready for the future as those whom we have cared the least for and about. I wish you all the gift of caring this season, and all that you care about in the new year is yours in abundance.