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South Mountain Elementary School kindergartners learn by giving.

Purchasing a pair of shoes may seem like a simple enough task, but for many area residents, the cost is prohibitive.

Students in Debbie Wright and Serena Watkinson's kindergarten class learn to help others by holding a "Book and a Bear" drive. L to R: Lincoln McLeod, Samantha Colding, Wynne Basner.

“For the working poor, paying rent takes up most, if not all, of their earnings,” says Bernadette Murphy, executive director of the St. Joseph Social Service Center, a sister agency to the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless in Elizabeth. “So access to housing advocacy, food, medicine, and clothing from agencies like St. Joseph’s and the Coalition is critical.”

When South Mountain Elementary School kindergarten teacher Debbie Wright first learned about the Elizabeth Coalition’s dire need for shoes through a church contact seven years ago, she decided to get involved. Wright and her co-teacher of eleven years, Serena Watkinson, created a program designed to empower their young students to do good by collecting goods.

“Our motto quickly became, ‘Little People Can Do Big Things’,” Wright says. “That is the message we want our kids to walk away with at the end of the year and carry with them as they grow.”

Myron Clark, driver from Maplecrest Moves Charities, Sabrina Foxe, head custodian at South Mountain School, teachers Debbie Wright and Serena Watkinson and Ellie Lesperance fill a truck to take donations to a local nonprofit.

Wright and Watkinson, a.k.a. Team W, start off the year by encouraging students to “Trick-or-Treat for Unicef.” During the Thanksgiving season, the students collect food for an organization called Feed 2000. Team W runs the shoe drive for the Elizabeth Coalition in the early spring, and in June students collect books and gently-used stuffed animals to donate to a school in Newark.

Rising fourth-grader Max Schaefer says he learned the importance of helping others when he was in Team W’s kindergarten class. “Sometimes I think about getting a small job to make my own money,” he says, “but it’s also always good to think about doing things for other people without making money from it.”

Max’s brother, Jacob, who’s entering seventh grade in the fall, agrees. “It feels good knowing that you are helping other people by giving them things they need.”

In 2015, Aasha Patel, now 10, participated in Team W’s shoe drive as a kindergartner. She says when she learned that many people cannot afford to buy simple things, like shoes or books, she decided she wanted “to spend less money on stuff I don’t need and make more of an effort to volunteer to help those people.”

Khloe Lee, Noah Goldberg, and Hazel Radom sort shoes. This year, 2,279 pairs were collected in two weeks and were distributed to the Sole Shoe Mission.

Aasha’s mom, Roshni Patel, says Team W’s efforts made her daughter more aware and appreciative of what is going on in the world. “She essentially lives in a bubble, where’s she’s fed, clothed and can do anything she wants,” Patel explains. “She thinks twice now before asking for a new pair of shoes or clothing or not eating her food, when she knows that some children don’t have any food to eat.”

Patel co-chairs the South Mountain Cares program, a committee on the Parent Teachers Association meant to provide meaningful service opportunities for students and their families throughout the year. The program spearheads many outreach efforts, including extending Team W’s annual shoe drive to involve all kindergarten students in collecting and sorting the shoes.

Team W teaches the kindergartners to sort, pair, count, graph, and tally the shoes. “They get so excited watching our numbers grow closer to our goal,” Wright explains. “It ties in beautifully with our math curriculum and the kids love it. They are always beaming with pride when we wrap up an event and they realize what a difference they were able to make in the lives of those less fortunate.”

Associate license counselor Annette Calderin, part of the Leadership Team at St. Joseph Social Service Center, sees firsthand the difference these kids make. She distributes the collected shoes to individuals and families who visit the Sole Shoe Mission in Elizabeth.

“When a person feels the comfort of a better shoe compared to the one they may be wearing for a long period of time they are so grateful,” Calderin says.

Khloe Lee, Noah Goldberg, Anya Karthik and Neer Mittal receive many donations of stuffed animals.

According to Wright, in the first year of the shoe drive, Team W collected approximately 400 pairs of shoes of every size, shape, style and season. “Our numbers have grown each year and our former students/families stockpile shoes in their basements all year eagerly awaiting our shoe drive,” Wright says. “This year we collected 2,279 pairs of shoes in just two weeks. It’s really incredible.”

The US Census Bureau shows nearly 17 percent of people in Essex county live below the poverty level. Items like a strong pair of shoes, or books or stuffed animals, are luxuries.

Wright expects the “Book and a Bear” drive to continue to flourish as well. For the past several years, Team W has given first grade teacher Susan Palmucci books and stuffed animals to share throughout the Cleveland School in Newark.

“Many of our children don’t have the resources available to them that middle class students may,” Palmucci explains. “To get five to six books to take home and share with family or just read to themselves is so special. They all enjoy going through books and discussing books they got with their friends.”

Team W: Teachers Serena Watkinson and Debbie Wright.

Wright says this year’s drive doubled last year’s numbers, with South Mountain Elementary School delivering more than 3,700 books and 1,000 stuffed animals in June.

“Nothing is sweeter than watching big tough eighth grade boys and girls falling in love with stuffed animals,” Palmucci says.

The Team W kindergartners at South Mountain School are proud of their drives to help service organizations such as the Elizabeth Coalition, Unicef and Feed 2000.

South Mountain’s outgoing PTA president Audrey Schaefer says Jacob and Max, her sons, learned how to work with their classmates to complete meaningful projects. “The experiences our kids had in kindergarten at South Mountain will stay with them forever,” she says. “Our immediate and extended family still participates in all of the community service efforts led by Team W (as do many, many other families!) and hope to do so for many years to come.”

To donate to the various South Mountain school drives, Wright suggests calling the school at 973-378-5216 to confirm time frames of the different collections and drop-off locations.

Cheryl Silver is a theater enthusiast and runner who previously worked as a journalist in central Illinois before moving with her husband and three children to South Orange in 2016.


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