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Students get unexpected lessons in generosity

MIDDLEBURY — Mary Hogan Elementary School students Dahlia Harrison and Nell Brayton learned a couple of important lessons during the past month that can’t be taught in the classroom.
First, they received proof positive that the Middlebury community’s generosity knows no bounds.
Second, they learned about the power of federal officials to derail that generosity from its intended target — in this case, Syrian refugees.
The two sixth-graders in early February decided to solicit donations of various cleaning, personal hygiene, clothing and household items for the anticipated arrival of up to 100 Syrian refugees in Rutland. The girls took on the task as part of a community service component of their current events class with grades 5/6 teacher Deb Levesque.
All of Levesque’s students were invited to give back to the community — be it their hometown or to fulfill a more global need — following last year’s presidential election.
“The class was visibly affected by some of the negative response/actions that ensued following the election,” Levesque explained.
For example, someone drew a swastika symbol on the door of the local Jewish community’s Havurah House on North Pleasant Street.
“When evidence of intolerance evidenced itself locally, we decided it was time to take some action,” she said.
So they started a “crusade of kindness” at Mary Hogan that included blanketing the school’s halls with messages about kindness, caring and inclusion. Students also created what they called a “blizzard of appreciation” through which they singled out members of the school community for special accolades.
Levesque’s sixth-graders were given a chance to earn an overnight at the school, including a pizza party, flashlight tag, brownies, popcorn and a movie. In order to qualify, the students had to accept a challenge that included “service learning” to build a stronger community.
Students were very creative in their community service approaches. Some helped the school custodians. Others held a “game night” that raised $200 for the Save the Children charity. Students also volunteered their help at the Charter House Coalition’s community dinners, at the Helen Porter nursing home, and walking dogs for the elderly.
“They all saw they could follow their interests and still help the local or global community,” Levesque said.
Events in Syria — the civil war and resulting refugee crisis — influenced Harrison and Brayton’s community service project. The class watched a “Frontline” documentary that tracked a number of Syrian families and their desperate and repeated attempts to escape to Europe.
The girls decided to gather useful items for the planned settlement of Syrian refugees in Rutland. They posted a barrel in the school lobby to receive gifts of soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, notebooks, tissues, coats and other essential items. They included a letter in the report card envelopes of each Mary Hogan Elementary student, asking parents to contribute.
And contribute they did.
Just a few weeks into the drive, they had netted more than 200 items — including a $100 check from a local family. They hoped to personally deliver the items to Rutland County’s newest residents.
“I was really surprised and happy about how many things we got,” Harrison said.
“We live in a very nice, generous community,” Brayton added.
But then came President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries — including Syria. Only two Syrian families had made it to Rutland prior to the ban, they learned. Suddenly, the students had a wealth of donations without an abundance of recipients.
“I thought it wasn’t fair at all,” Brayton said of the ban. “After losing everything, now they couldn’t come here.”
“I wish we could have done more, and that more Syrian refugees could have made it through,” she added.
So organizers contacted the Refugee Resettlement office in Colchester to ask if there were other folks who might benefit from the bounty of donations. The answer was an emphatic “yes.” The supplies will now go to newly arrived/arriving Bhutanese and Burmese/Myanmar families, as well as some Iraqi and Somali families who arrived before Trump’s executive order.
“This additionally heightened our own awareness regarding the scope of the global refugee situation — that while much of the world’s focus remains on Syria, there are millions of humans in similarly desperate circumstances in other countries around the world,” Levesque said.
The school donation bin will receive contributions through this Friday, March 3.
The students are hoping for a nice new harvest of donations.
“I feel we could do it the whole year and still keep getting (donations),” Harrison said.
“I believe anyone could be doing something like this,” Brayton said. “It was easier than I thought.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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