It’s easy for the holiday season to devolve into a mad scramble for presents and the belief that star in the east revolves around me, me, me.
At Karen Western Elementary in Ralston, educators and students tried to reverse such a trend with a monthlong campaign to “pay it forward.”
“We’ve just been talking about how to show the students what the holiday season is all about,” said Principal Cecilia O’Donnell.
“We met as a staff to discuss some ways to help and do it in a way that wasn’t monetary. We talked about service instead and it just grew from there,” she said.
In addition to the undertakings at school, students were encouraged to find ways they could help at home, in their neighborhood and the community.
Students wrote letters to American service members overseas and to residents of nursing homes, helped neighbors hang Christmas lights, collected wind-blown garbage cans, made cookies for friends and even provided smiles for total strangers.
“Whenever we’re driving somewhere, we’ll roll down the windows and just wave at people as we go by,” said Kyla Skorniak, a second-grader. “Just a wave and say, ‘Hi,’ and you never know how you might help someone who might not be having such a good day.”
During the month of paying it forward, Kyla and her fellow second-graders in teacher Missy DeHart’s class completed “random acts of kindness” throughout the building.
One morning, her students gathered in a circle in the classroom and DeHart doled out a few assignments of a different kind, sending her students to locations around Karen Western where they might be of service.
“Help is sometimes more of a gift than an actual gift,” DeHart told her pupils as they embarked upon their jobs — cleaning tables in the reading room, sorting books in the media center and putting away supplies in the third-grade classroom.
DeHart said she came up with the idea of the “random” acts in conversation with her colleagues.
“It connects the students to service in a way they can see and feel,” she said. “It’s fun to donate clothes or toys, sure. But this is something where they can see the results immediately and get that feeling of having done something to make someone else feel good and actually see it.
“It’s been very powerful, and the kids have just loved this.”
For as much joy as they have sowed at school and in the community, it’s come back to the students tenfold, said Diego Sanchez, another second-grader in DeHart’s class.
“I like making people feel happy,” he said. “Random acts of kindness mean you just kind of show up and ask to help and that makes people happy. It makes me happy, too.”
Along with the philanthropic component, the students also learned some applicable lessons.
DeHart, who is in her third year as a teacher in Ralston, said this year’s class has demonstrated a level of maturity not often found in second grade — so much so that she can send them off to other classrooms knowing they’ll arrive ready to lend aid.
“It’s built their confidence,” DeHart said. “It gives them an opportunity to go into a situation, talk to people and do some good work. I don’t think they’ve even noticed how much they’ve done.”
O’Donnell said that’s in keeping with the school’s mission.
“We teach academics,” she said. “But we also have a responsibility to teach other things, too.”