'Santa Class' a lesson in helping others

Fifth-graders reach out to those in need
By Stina Sieg | Dec 21, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg

By the end of last week, most youngsters were probably raring to get out of school, hungry for the holiday break. But not Lara Ernest's fifth-grade class.

Instead of watching the clock last Thursday afternoon, they were patiently, quietly folding clothes, sorting toys and placing books on shelves. As they went about their work, their faces were serious with concentration. Their little thrift shop, surprisingly well-stocked and located in a trailer behind Jonathan Valley Elementary, is meant to help those in need in their community.

This is "Santa Class," and it was the students' idea entirely. They donated almost all of the stuff and came up with a special, across-the-board price. Money isn't actually accepted here. Instead, for every item someone takes, he or she must promise to do something nice for someone else.

It's enough to make Ernest wide-eyed in wonder. She's never seen a class so sure and self-motivated.

Even in the beginning, "There was not one fight, not one argument," she said, watching the scene unfold. "It was just sweet."

Everyone who has seen the store agrees, she explained. There hasn't been an adult yet who could walk through with completely dry eyes.

Part of the emotion must come from how bound and determined these students are, how free of doubt. When asked if they thought they could change things for people, they responded in happy unison.

"Yes!" they all shouted.

Spencer Evans quickly added, "We're going to make a big difference in their lives."

Those kinds of words make Ernest smile. The 12-year teaching veteran explained that this was a huge surprise, and it all started with a poem. A few weeks ago, she and the class were reading "The Raggedy Girl," about an impoverished little girl. Ernest mentioned to the students that are children like that girl, some of whom don't even have Christmas presents or any toys. Most of students looked baffled by that, but one spoke up.

"One of the girls in my class said 'I don't have any toys because my grandmother can't afford them,'" Ernest said.

The girl added that she didn't actually mind, though, because her little brother had a few toys, and it made her happy just to watch him play. A little boy then piped up with his story, saying that one year his family's well went dry, and they had to haul water up from the creek to boil and use. Bawling, he told Ernest he had to come to school in dirty clothes a few times. She just held him and told him it wasn't his fault.

"Of course there was not a dry eye in class at that point," she said.

The children plunged into discussion — and action, not long after.

As Levi Putnam put it, "You can start things with your emotions."

And did they ever. All on their own, the class came up with the idea for the store and got the ball rolling. We're going to change the world, Ernest remembered one boy saying. Later, another said they were going to change the universe.

They met with the school counselor, who gave them her full support. Soon, they were offered an empty trailer out back, which they cleared and cleaned as a group. In no time, they were bringing gobs of donated goods from their family and friends. There was so much, in fact, that Ernest joked her classroom looked like a Goodwill. It didn't stay that way long, however, as the children broke themselves up into committees and went to work.

Some dealt with sorting the things, some with the washing and some with the publicity of the soon-to-be store, and more.

The children took care of everything, and while many were quick to say it wasn't easy, they looked proud.

"It was hard, but we had a fun time," Spencer said. "We had to work together."

"And we still have to work together!" chimed in Carrie Sutton.

For most of them, "Santa Class" has also meant sacrificing things they hold dear. Everyone who could, donated some of their own stuff, from clothes that no longer fit to beloved toys.

Austin Spruill, who sometimes calls himself a stuffed-animal addict, explained that it was hard at first to give away many of his toys, but the more he did it, the better he began to feel. He even gave away a little stuffed gorilla, one of his favorites.

"Someone else would love it more than me," he said.

So far, a handful of people identified by the school have come through the store and taken with them items that might well be wrapped up for Christmas by now.

Andres Vazquez, like many of his classmates, tried to put into words how this affects him.

"It feels good inside you," he said, "because you're helping other people."

And, also like all of his classmates, he doesn't want this to end.

Soon Christmas will have come and gone, but as Spencer stressed, "I hope this is a whole-year thing."

Ernest does, too, though she's intent on keeping everything completely student-run. After school starts back up, she imagines the store will come back to life, and hopefully fill up with "shoppers" in need. Some parents have already volunteered to drive people without cars to the school, and the children still have stuff they haven't had time to add to their ever-growing cache.

So, it looks like "Santa Class" is here to stay. It fills Ernest with optimism — not just about her students, but the world. Even weeks into the project, it still amazes her.

"And to be perfectly honest," she said, "if this is our future, I have hope."

To learn more about "Santa Class" or to get involved, call Jonathan Valley Elementary at 926-3207. The store will be closed during break, but will open after classes resume Wednesday, Jan. 2.

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