Having just finished a unit on slavery and United States history, Vogel seized the moment and read the newspaper story to her 5th grade students at the Highline Community School in this busy suburb just east of downtown Denver. “I just couldn’t imagine how the world was letting this go on,” she says. “And the kids--who thought that slavery was an evil that someone else had gotten rid of--asked what they could do.”
So began STOP, short for Slavery That Oppresses People, a human-rights awareness campaign that Vogel estimates has now reached hundreds of millions of people worldwide. After researching Sudan’s slave trade on the Internet and contacting anti-slavery organizations in the United States and Switzerland, Vogel’s class wrote letters to President Clinton, members of Congress, and celebrities across the country. They also sold lemonade and T-shirts, broke open their piggy banks, and scraped together enough money to buy the freedom of two Sudanese slaves.
The 5th graders who started the project moved on to 6th grade this fall, but they are still writing letters. Vogel has a new class, and the campaign continues to grow. The teacher and her charges have been widely featured in the media, from Good Morning America and Roseanne’s talk show to Time magazine and the New York Times. The campaign even has its own volunteer public relations expert, and it recently launched a Web site at www.anti-slavery.org/stop.
So far, the students have fired off more than 1,000 letters. Though the kids don’t solicit money, the media stories about the campaign have prompted an outpouring of support. Donations now total over $50,000, enough to free more than 1,000 enslaved Sudanese.
Recently, the University of Colorado named Vogel and her students the recipients of the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award. It will honor them at a ceremony in May. “The kids are the conscience of America,” the teacher says. “They are the leaders in this effort.”
Vogel says that her students have matured as the campaign has progressed and that their behavior has improved, too. “They understand that if you’re going to try to tell the world to shape up, then you’d better set a good example,” says the teacher, a 26-year veteran of the Cherry Creek school system. “It is so empowering for these children to realize that they can make a change for the better.”
The campaign also fits squarely within Vogel’s teaching philosophy. “I firmly believe that my job is to balance the heart and the mind,” she says. “If you teach the heart of the child, the mind will easily follow.”
As for the students, “they now understand how precious freedom is.” Vogel says. “They understand--I understand--what a gift it is.”
Barbara Vogel may be reached at email@example.com.