Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Shoebox Project

I have always believed that education is a three-way street that includes teacher, child, and parent.  I have also believed that parents play a supportive role in the classroom and a dominant role outside the walls of school.  It is my job to ask questions about my child, the work he or she is doing, and the expectations of the teacher.  It is my job to help my child meet those expectations. It is my job to advocate for my child if need be.  But it is not my job to micromanage the classroom.  That responsibility is mine in the outside world, and the classroom I entrust to the teacher.

However, that doesn't mean that teachers and parents cannot work together to accomplish learning.  This past week I saw a collaboration of school, home, and community come together, and together, we made a difference in the lives of others.

The Shoebox Project started a little over a month ago, the week before Super Sandy hit, when I cleaned out my children's closets and discovered 17 empty shoe boxes.  Before you say, "wow," let me share a few facts:

  • Children under five grow quickly.  They typically outgrow shoes in 3-5 months.
  • If they have not outgrown sneakers in 3-5 months, preschool boys have destroyed them and need a new pair.
  • If they have not outgrown their "girly" shoes in 3-5 months, preschool girls have destroyed the toes and need a new pair.
  • I have 5 year old twins.
Taking these facts together, along with my propensity to store shoe boxes rather than throwing them away, it should not be surprising that I had accumulated 17 empty boxes.  Piled high in my hallway, the boxes longed for a home, someone who could put them to use.  (Remember, I have a hard time throwing shoe boxes in the garbage. )  I asked all of the elementary school teachers that I knew if they could use them.  I posted a plea to my Facebook friends to take them.  No one accepted.

Then the storm came, and I forgot about the boxes, which had become part of the hallway decor, until my husband, in a state of aggravation that was probably caused by frustration in the wake of Sandy, asked whether we could recycle the boxes.  Not wanting to agree that it was time to destroy these perfect, cardboard storage devices, I thought one more time about a good use for them.

My children and I have donated parade and Halloween candy to Operation Shoebox, an organization that supports overseas troops by trying to raise morale and to let them know that people are thinking of them, caring about them.  In fact, the last shipment I sent to Operation Shoebox was encased in an old shoe box that I found in my closet!

Operation Shoebox seemed the perfect use for the boxes in my hall, but this time, I wanted to help children.  I thought of all of those displaced by the storm, the children who had lost all of their belongings and their families who might not be able to give them a Christmas this year, and I wondered if we could do our own Operation Shoebox to build their morale.  By the time the idea formed, I had purchased new sneakers for my kids and dress shoes for my son.  My pile of boxes was up to 20, just one shy of the number of children in my kids' Kindergarten class.  I knew immediately I wanted to bring their teacher into the project, and she was excited to become involved.

Though I knew I could garner donations for the boxes and that the children would take care of the packaging and notes that would be included, I needed an outlet for delivery.  My former student, spurred  by her own struggle to find how one individual could help in the aftermath of Sandy, had started a non-profit organization, NJ Strong, to coordinate volunteer efforts.  She enthusiastically took our project and matched us with a school district that has over 100 displaced families.  Last week, the children in my kids' class created the boxes. Yesterday, NJ Strong delivered 25 wrapped shoe boxes to kindergartners and first graders in those families. (Reports from Asbury Park Press and Atlantic City Press.)

My children's teacher was able to make this project a teachable moment - the class learned the word empathy, a very hard concept to teach to 5-year-olds. The children who received the boxes found a small rainbow after the storm, and they know that someone else is thinking of them, that someone else cares.  The Shoebox Project shows what education can be when community, schools, and parents collaborate in the name of service.

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