Empire Elementary School students are helping kids with a lot less than they have, collecting gently used shoes as a step toward making a better world. The effort is tied to an anti-bullying campaign with a sunshine message: Be kind.
“We’re giving a new behavior to focus on, rather than just telling them to stop,” said Gary Xavier of Think Kindness, just before jumping onstage to get 200 fourth- through sixth-graders thoroughly pumped to sweeten the world.
Friday’s assembly was the kickoff for 15 days of collecting shoes to compete for the title of America’s kindest Think Kindness school. Fifteen days to change the world, Xavier told them.
But what impresses Principal Nancy Fox is the way her students are changing their world.
Since student officers met with Xavier via a Skype face-to-face phone call, they have written letters to businesses and promoted Think Kindness campuswide.
“I haven’t seen this kind of excitement about a presentation in a long time,” Fox said. She is in her fourth year at Empire, a school where 86 percent of students qualify for free lunches.
“A community like ours is often used to being the recipients,” she said. “Now our students are collecting shoes to send to Africa.”
“They’re excited about helping other kids in another country that have far less than they do,” said Angela Serna, assistant of student services at the school.
Student Body Treasurer Kathryn Gonzalez, a fifth-grader, said she and her fellow officers chose to collect shoes “because kids have to look down.”
“That really resonated with them,” Serna said. “We take shoes for granted. But children without shoes have to look down all the time to see where they’re walking. Giving them shoes means they can look up.”
The campus has traditional anti-bullying efforts, like a Bully Box where anonymous notes can report problems. Last week was Anti-Bully Week, with a poster contest and lunchtime pledge to end bullying. But the biggest change appears to be coming from a focus on good deeds.
“Shout Outs,” little notes that students turn in telling of kindnesses they witnessed, started this year. Notes are picked out to read aloud at morning openings, with the surprised doer of a good deed called to the front to be honored.
“It’s a huge deal,” Serna said. “The students clap for them. They never know who it’s going to be.” A boy who helped pick up dropped books for another student was amazed to be called up to take a bow last week, she said.
“We used to have Soaring Eagles, where teachers would recognize a student,” Fox said. “This has taken on a whole new energy, having kids participate and recognize each other.”
They sometimes even turn the tables and recognize teachers, said Fox, who has a “Shout Out” that a child wrote for her mounted on the wall above her desk.
The school has had some bullying incidents, Fox said, but “no more than I’ve seen at other schools.” But with poverty comes other problems that youngsters have no power to fix. Community Hospice workers come to the school regularly to help children coping with death or loss. The Center for Human Services sends counselors.
“Sometimes there’s behaviors; often even they don’t realize where it’s coming from,” she said. “Sometimes they need somebody to just listen to them.” Staff members, including the school’s custodian and secretary, tend to be those somebodies. “That one-on-one time is all a part of the support,” Fox said.
But Friday, Empire Elementary’s cafeteria rocked with the power of positive. Urged on by Xavier, students shouted, shrieked and oorah-ed until the former Marine called a check.
Shout. Check. Message time. Repeat.
“A huge majority of people underestimate you,” Xavier told fourth- through sixth-graders. “They think you’re little kids. People make assumptions.”
He laid out his kindness philosophy as the pinnacle of a triangle. The right side of the triangle stood for the strong, competitive side of people, a side that can sometimes go too far. The left side stood for the silly side, making jokes and playing games. But that, too, sometimes gets carried away. The point at the top is where it all comes together, Xavier said.
“How can I help? It takes more strength to do this, more fun to do this, than either of these others,” he said.
Xavier wound up his show urging every student to donate two pairs of shoes or get two others to give theirs. “Find a way to help someone,” he said. “Fifteen days starts now.”
A parent in the audience handed Xavier his shoes on the spot.
Leaving the cafeteria, fourth-grader Diana Atayde said she liked the show. “I didn’t cry,” she added.
But others did, Serna said. “I saw some emotional kids, some crying,” she said, adding that a section of the show where the audience raced around giving high-five, quick-hug greetings had an unexpected, maybe major effect.
“We have a fifth-grader whose been having some ...” she thought for a moment, choosing her words, “some bully-like behaviors, a little too forceful at times. She said she was feeling like she understood now, that it felt so good to hug somebody.”