People often ask me why I choose to teach in a Catholic school when I’m a Protestant. My response is always the same. When I realized God was calling me to teach, I knew one thing for certain. I needed to be able to verbally acknowledge where my calling came from on a daily basis. I was recently reminded of how important my calling is to me.
I’m not the only teacher who has pondered, “Am I making a difference? Am I teaching my students to make a difference? Am I following God’s direction when I teach?” The fruits of one teacher’s answers to these questions resulted in an entire school making a stand for those in need.
St. Matthew School’s first-ever Poverty Action Day was Friday, March 31. This day, and all of the work that led up to it, would not have come about if a teacher had not had the courage to share her idea with others.
The idea for this initiative started when one of our former fourth-grade teachers, Patricia Wendover, finished the “Just Faith” course at St. Matthew Church. She said the course made her want to put her faith into action. She wanted to come up with an idea that would encourage students to work towards helping those in need, and enable them to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Her idea grew into a MACS Education Foundation grant application that she wrote with two of our kindergarten teachers, Pat Frantz and Mary Strauss. Betsy DesNoyer joined the team to help when Wendover left to teach at St. Patrick School and spend more time doing volunteer work. When the MACS Education Foundation awarded them the funds for this Social Justice Grant, the seeds for Poverty Action Day were planted.
All St. Matthew classroom teachers received books to share and explain Catholic social teachings to their students. Our school’s value recognition program was revised to emphasize these Catholic social teachings, and each month two students who modeled the social teaching of the month were recognized during Mass.
Poverty Action Day was the culmination of our school year’s efforts to make our students more aware of the importance of recognizing Jesus in every person.
Poverty Action Week began with a visit from Bishop Peter Jugis on Monday, March 27. Students gathered to hear an inspiring message from Bishop Jugis about the importance of Catholic social teaching. Student Council members escorted Bishop Jugis around the school so he could meet with students and hear what they have been doing to help others in need. He had a firsthand glimpse of each grade’s individual contribution to our school-wide efforts. Our transitional kindergarten, kindergarten, and first-grade students gathered food, diapers, wipes and more to help the Missionaries of the Poor in Monroe. Second-grade students held a “reverse snack” sale, in which students could buy a snack for the children at A Child’s Place. Third-grade students created a “Hall of Heroes” highlighting people who dedicated their lives to helping the poor. Fourth-grade students wrote to public officials asking them to help the poor and also made “blessing boxes” for the homeless. Fifth-grade students created a “state of poverty” and listened to a speaker from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. They also watched a video describing the efforts of three men who decided to live in poverty to raise awareness of the need to help others.
Ending the week-long effort on Poverty Action Day, all students had the opportunity to hear a guest speaker talk about the importance of helping the poor and sharing their blessings from God. Each grade toured the school to see what other students were doing to help people in need. Students had a simple snack of saltines and water.
Poverty Action Day concluded with a prayer service led by Bishop Emeritus William Curlin, who inspired everyone with his personal experiences of helping the poorest of the poor. He shared stories of when he visited with Mother Teresa in India, and he passed on to students Mother Teresa’s advice to him: The best gift we can give others is to share the love of Jesus. He reminded them to ask Jesus to live in them each day.
As I talked with the teachers involved over the course of the week, I thought it neat that they all said it was someone else’s idea.
Their humility inspires me. None of this would have happened if one teacher hadn’t shared her idea with a few other teachers. What ideas have you been pondering as of late?
As I reflect on the week, I am encouraged that our students will be inspired to continue to share with others. I saw firsthand how the message of the week was about changing their actions towards each other for the better.
The question I’m pondering now is: “Whose lives will be changed for good because of their generosity?”
I cannot wait to see these seeds of love blossom. I cannot wait to see what stories their pencils will tell.
May we all follow in their footsteps.
Ellen Deem teaches the first grade at St. Matthew School in Charlotte.