By Whitney Thistle, Valley of the Sun United Way’ Major Gifts Officer and Women’s Leadership Council member
In 2003 I was a young teacher fresh out of college and immediately placed in a Title 1 school. My mind was filled with optimism and excitement as I embarked on teaching middle school students at a school with over 1,300 children and a 100% free and reduced lunch rate.
As a new teacher, I felt empowered, ready and well prepared for the challenges teaching such an age would bring. I was to become a role model to students whose life's circumstances were less than stellar and whose personal struggles were barely offering them an outlet to succeed (learning disabilities, family issues, gang members/drugs/crime in their families, high poverty). Their frustrations often resulted in acting out physically and emotionally.
Part of my responsibility, was to host a 15-minute mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack break in my classroom for each grade. Students would come in, grab their snack (apples, crackers, pretzels, granola bars), have a laugh with their friends and then head off to their next class.
A pair of sisters in 6th and 8th grade, whom I had developed a great relationship with, caught my eye one afternoon. They each came in for snack, said, “Hi,” quickly and then took three or four snacks each, hurriedly hiding them in their back packs. They didn't eat them there with their classmates as they always done in days prior, they just stowed them away. The next morning, the same thing happened. Morning snack time came; the sisters stealthily grabbed additional snacks and headed out the door.
After a few days of this, on a Friday afternoon, the same situation occurred. I let my classroom clear after the snack break and asked the sisters to stay back for a moment. I could tell by the look on their faces that they thought they were in trouble. I sat them down and gently asked how I could help and if they could share what is going on.
Through tears and shame, they shared with me that they were currently living in a car with their father, and had no money for food. The free meals at school were all they ate. Their mother had passed away 2 years earlier from cancer and their father had a difficult time getting back on his feet with only one income. I immediately consoled them while fighting back my own tears and asked if I could walk them to our school office to see what we could do to make things better.
While walking with them to the office, holding each of their hands, I felt an immense feeling of guilt. How did I not know? What signs did I miss? What questions should I have asked? I should have known!
Once at the office we called their father, and we all began to work with a counselor and our principal on immediate ways we could help; we called United Way and other local resources to connect this family with housing and benefits (SNAP - known as food stamps/toiletries/clothes for the girls). The father was overwhelmed; he expressed gratitude and shame about their situation. I have still to this day never seen a grown man more humble and yet gracious.
He was so humiliated that the girls had been taking extra food, and admitted that he had also sent them to school early several times to wash themselves in the schools' bathroom sinks. He said he never wanted anyone to know or feel pity for him or his daughters. He was ashamed for not asking for help sooner, and was so thankful that help found him.
After a few hours of making a plan and reaching out, this family was able to utilize available resources and they were off the streets, and out of the car, that night.
What an amazing opportunity to support this family through a time. From then on, I looked at each student and their challenges as an opportunity and keep this with me even today and it has led me to want to serve others more. I even changed careers, seeking to work for an organization that focused on giving people a hand up in life, not a hand out. I wanted to work somewhere that I knew was focused on vital community issues and somewhere I would leave each day feeling I had made a difference. It led me to United Way. After 4 years of serving others, I continue to be thankful for the opportunity each challenge brings.
Valley of the Sun United Way's Women's Leadership Council is hosting a luncheon at the Phoenician Resort on Friday, April 28 to raise money for Breakfast in the Classroom. Actor Geena Davis will be guest speaking to help make our goal of providing a nutritious breakfast program for 75,000 students in our community that may not otherwise have breakfast and spread a message of empowering women. Your ticket purchase to the luncheon brings us closer to achieving our mission.