Students React to Crisis With Acts of Kindness— Heartfelt and Practical

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 26, 2001 5 min read
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In thousands of small and large gestures, students who have been deeply moved by images of buildings tumbling down and rescue workers striving to save human lives have reached out to do something to help.

And many principals, teachers, and leaders of national education groups said last week that they’ve tried to support young people’s desire to be of service to the community—something many of them have been stressing for the past decade or so in schools—in such a time of national sorrow.

If anyone doubted that American schoolchildren possessed an ethos of community service, those doubts should have been dispelled as a result of students’ caring actions after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, said Amitai Etzioni, a sociology professor at George Washington University.

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“It’s up to the educators to reinforce it, rather than let it wane over the next weeks,” said Mr. Etzioni, who wrote the 1994 book The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American Society.

“This event was so powerful and so immediate and so intense, kids just jumped at the chance to do something,” added Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, who interviewed educators at 28 schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota about students’ responses to the attacks. “One of the things the adults said over and over was that [a community-service project] was the students’ idea.”

Doing Something

Activities supported last week by schools included creating hopeful drawings and messages for a Web site intended for children who had lost family members in the attacks, sending encouraging banners to a firefighter working at the collapsed World Trade Center site, holding fund-raisers and blood drives for the American Red Cross, and organizing letter-writing campaigns to government leaders.

Students initiated many of the activities.

Deshonna Faulas, 5, holds a teddy bear that will be sent to a child in New York City or Washington as part of an Oklahoma City effort to give every elementary school student in those cities a bear for comfort.
—J. Pat Carter/AP

“I had been watching the news and stuff,” said Yvette Anaya, a junior at the 1,965-student Santa Fe High School in New Mexico. “It bothered me how it’s been a bad thing, and how these people were hurt. We couldn’t do things as students. ... We thought we could collect money.”

The 16-year-old and some other students approached their principal and asked for support to take up a collection at school for the Red Cross. In a one-day campaign, in which they gave donors pins with red, white, and blue ribbons that said “Attack on America” and “New York Relief Fund,” they collected $3,200. A local Eddie Bauer clothing store promised to match the donation.

Allison Mathews’ desire to do something positive led the 17-year- old senior at Clover Hill High School in Richmond, Va., to start a campaign for the 1,900 students in her school to wear yellow ribbons in solidarity with rescue workers at the sites of the attacks.

The point “was to bring the school together and give us a unified front against the bad thing that’s going on,” Ms. Mathews said. “Even if we’re students and can’t go to New York ... we can come together and say our thoughts and prayers are with them and we appreciate the work the rescue workers are doing.”

Ms. Mathews also volunteered at a local Red Cross chapter to answer telephones after the attacks and is organizing, along with other student leaders, a school fundraiser for the Red Cross.

Another teenager, Dominique Parris, a 15-year-old sophomore at the Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, Pa., acted in yet another way. Though she isn’t Quaker, she attends a private school run by Quakers, who historically have been pacifists.

She said she was disturbed by talk of retaliation in news reports and on a local radio station immediately after the attacks.

“I had a very strong inspiration inside that I had to do something, to let our government know that there are people in our country who are not filled with the rage I was hearing and witnessing,” Ms. Parris said. “I felt this urgency that if we retaliated prematurely, it was going to be a bad situation. I do understand the likelihood we will have to use force, but I don’t want to wage war against civilians.”

She fired off an e-mail to the local radio disc jockey, telling him she was disheartened by the “very explosive stuff” he had said on the air. And she talked with a teacher at her school, who encouraged her to organize other students for some kind of response. She decided to launch a campaign among students at her school and other Quaker schools to write to President Bush and other government leaders to use restraint.

The Art of Love

Various teachers at the elementary school level sensed their pupils would benefit from doing something helpful in response to the crisis, and so organized activities along those lines.

“Kids have to do something concrete,” said Joann Gioiella, a 3rd grade teacher at Silver Bay Elementary School in Toms River, N.J. She learned that the father of a student at her school was a rescue worker at the World Trade Center site.

She had her students make two patriotic-colored banners for him that read: “We’re Proud of You.” And, she said, “we’re singing our patriotic songs a little louder, so they can hear them in New York.”

Joan Goble, a 3rd grade teacher at Cannelton Elementary School in Cannelton, Ind., led her students in composing illustrations and messages on a Web site for children who had lost family members in the attacks. The site, called Kids Share Hope, is at www.globalschoolnet.org.

“They wanted to do hearts,” Ms. Goble said. “They wanted to show there was love out there ... Some are saying they’re going to pray for them. I’m not telling them not to say that. I feel if they want to say that, they can.”

Giving children flexibility in their responses to the national crisis is important, said Larry Dieringer, the executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility in Cambridge, Mass.

But he cautioned that “schools need to be careful to be guided by children’s questions and children’s concerns and children’s desires. It’s ... important to listen to children this week. It’s important to help young people develop their skills for managing their emotions at such a hard time.”

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