Sunday, September 16, 2018

Family Giving Tree!


I had such a great time speaking to the Drive Leaders for Family Giving Tree last week. This organization provides back-to-school backpacks and holiday gifts for under-resourced children in the Bay Area. Rather than re-explaining everything I like about them, I'm just going to quote from my own speech! Please check them out at their website or on Facebook!

Think of yourself as a student, or a parent of a student, at this school. Think about all the things I’ve just mentioned, and the financial stress that comes with trying to keep your family housed, safe, clothed, and fed. Now imagine that you’re getting ready to send your child to school with the feeling of shame that comes from not being properly prepared – not because you don’t want to do the best for your child, but because you literally can’t afford to.

In many more affluent schools, parents and PTAs join with teachers in providing books and supplies. Our school didn’t have a PTA and most of our parents couldn’t help out much, although they did when they could. And supplies and books were more important for kids who didn’t have them at home, so teachers used their meager paychecks to buy these for their students.

Now that I’ve given you the context, I think you’ll understand why we as teachers are so grateful for Family Giving Tree and for all of you and your work with getting these donations into the hands of students who need them.

Many of my students came to school with their belongings in plastic grocery bags because they didn’t have anything else to carry them in. I started asking my friends in tech who went to trade shows and got laptop bags to donate them to me. Pretty soon my class was the only one with 20 kids proudly sporting laptop bags, but they were not really the right size or shape for third-graders. They did, however, help the kids with their dignity, as they had something that didn’t look like a trash bag to bring to school.

Even when the kids got a backpack substitute, they usually didn’t have school supplies. Their parents wanted to help but they just didn’t have the money. I spent thousands of dollars of my own money each year. That’s right, thousands. On a beginning teachers’ salary! But what the school gave us was in no way enough and I needed to help these kids learn.

In addition to what I spent myself, I started asking people for supplies. I posted on Craigslist and got supplies from strangers. I begged friends for supplies. I asked my family to give me money for my classroom instead of Christmas and birthday presents. I was shameless – because it was for the kids. In fact, one of my friends who worked at Pixar Animation studios, recently reminded me that when we met, I asked him to come talk to my students before I even told him what my name was! I had one friend who made holiday gift boxes for all my third graders and the joy on their faces as they unwrapped the boxes – which contained practical school supplies, socks, art supplies and fun toys… well, these kids would be in their 20s now and it still makes me smile. If you want to hear more about how effective donations are, I have some great stories in my book. The truckload full of paper donation – and I mean full – is my favorite, but is a little too long to tell here.

People stepped up as I asked for help, and I had another surprise. I thought that my students would feel embarrassed about these donations. I thought they’d feel like they were accepting charity and have some shame about it. I was totally wrong. The kids were not only grateful, they saw these donations as proof that people cared, and that they were special. One third-grader said it, straight up: “People keep helping us because they know we’re special and they know we need an education.”

Now, a lot of people and groups try to help, and not all of them do it well. Every single teacher has a story of people who come in and donate… junk. I’ve gotten donations of stained clothing, used wrapping paper, and random tea bags. Family Giving tree is one of the good groups. Before I agreed to do this talk, I asked specifically how they communicate with the schools about the needs of the kids, and they gave me the answer I was hoping for.

Family Giving Tree talks to teachers and administrators at the schools to find out what is actually needed in the backpacks. They don’t assume, they actually talk to the people in the know, which is something I wish everyone did! There’s also a grade differentiation of the backpacks to make sure they have what is needed and appropriate. They also make sure that the contents of the backpacks are consistent, so there is no envy between kids.

This model is one of generosity, not of pity. It is not looking down on people and helping them because we feel sorry for them. It’s respectful and thoughtful, and actually helpful in a way that maintains the dignity of the recipients. This is essential I’m so grateful for all of you. I hope you will keep doing the drive every year and keep increasing the number of backpacks you collect, because there is so much need out there!


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