It takes a village
A story behind groups that leave a mark on the world.
October 16, 2018
A crescendo of joy and laughter fills a large room in Montego Bay, Jamaica, on a sweltering July morning. The beach, though right across the street, is not the main attraction. Among a mix of Jamaican teachers — dressed in their Sunday best — are close to 20 Allen teachers. Soon, the voices slowly die down and the Jamaican teachers sit at attention, ready to learn.
Rather than vacationing, Allen teachers spend hours cramming all of the possible teaching instruction they can into a three-day-long conference for more than 100 Jamaican teachers. Most Jamaican instructors come from over an hour each way — all paying for their own way to get there — to learn reading, math, special education and behavioral management strategies. The Teaching with Jamaica seminar has become a learning opportunity for both the volunteering Texans and Jamaican educators.
Such acts of humanitarianism have become a prominent and vital part of Allen’s education system. Every year, Allen students and educators aspire to make a difference locally and globally for individuals of all backgrounds — whether it be through church organizations, school groups like the Allen PALs program, or private groups such as Teaching with Jamaica.
Even though such volunteer programs are aimed toward accomplishing tangible, immediate goals, humanitarian activities have an impact ranging far beyond the palpable benefits; they have a personal, direct influence on those that volunteer and those they help, setting examples for peers and even for the next generation of humanitarians.
In 2006, Plano teacher Carla Hughes-Cass left a Montego Bay mission trip with the urge to make an impression on Jamaican students. According to 10-year Teaching With Jamaica member and Lindsey Elementary School ESL instructor Donna Walsh, Hughes-Cass observed a Jamaican teacher and her class of about 40 students with very limited supplies — only one box of crayons — and equally limited educational resources.
“Carla developed a passion for helping the teachers, and in turn helping the students,” Walsh said. “She went to an organization called Jamaica Link Ministries which hook people up here in our country and other countries to help people around the islands.”
Since its formation over a decade ago, Teaching With Jamaica has attracted a multitude of teachers, including Walsh, special education teacher Amy Wright from Reed Elementary School and ESL instructor Britni Haskin from Vaughn Elementary School. Their numbers have grown and so has the extent of their impact.
According to Walsh, the group started with about eight or nine teachers — traveling from school to school with few supplies and their suitcases — to an established, well-known organization, averaging about 20 people each conference. However, Walsh has ideas for expanding the organization’s future pursuits even more.
“We would like to grow our fundraising base,” Walsh said. “Instead of doing a library every three or four years, because it takes awhile to revamp and recoup from that, maybe perhaps [we can try] to put in more libraries.”
The three days of teaching strategy and supply distribution is only one part of the organization’s year-long humanitarian activities. According to Walsh, in addition to the intense workshop, Teaching with Jamaica has refurbished libraries for multiple Jamaican schools to help with their lack of resources. They spend months in advance planning, collecting funds and shipping books overseas in order to prepare for their arrival.
“While we’re still in Jamaica, we already start planning for next year’s trip,” Haskin said. “We already have boxes of stuff that we’re ready to take next year.”
The experience, as expressed by Allen’s elementary school teachers, is an opportunity to reflect and appreciate what Americans tend to take for granted in the education system.
“Being over there truly grounds you,” Wright said. “It brings you back to the whole reason we started teaching to begin with. It helps you find your purpose again and your passion and remind you how blessed you are.”
Haskin sees her annual trip to Jamaica as an opportunity not only to provide aid for the students and educators of the Montego Bay area, but also to set an example for her students and inspire them to take part in humanitarian organizations. Haskin wants her students to know that they can make a difference, even if that means starting on smaller projects and then moving onto bigger ones.
“I want my kids to know that ‘we’ is greater than the‘ me,’” Haskin said. “That it’s about them not being so self-focused and to look outward. I don’t think you’re ever too young to learn compassion, and then to also know what breaks your heart is probably the area that you can contribute something back for.”
Haskin’s philosophy regarding charitability and promoting general welfare is also ingrained in Allen’s PALS students. PALS, short for peer assistance and leadership, fosters a passion for service within their students. These students dedicate their time to mentoring young students in the district, upholding leadership positions and being active in their community.
One key aspect of the PALS program is pairing with an elementary student, helping them through challenges with friendly conversation and interactive activities. Senior Macie Kester, a four-year member of the program, has devoted hours to it.
“[The kids they mentor] have been picked out by a counselor or teacher — or maybe their parent has requested for them to have a PAL. [Sometimes it’s] based on whether their parents have just been divorced, they’re being bullied or just if someone’s noticed things like that,” Kester said. “We don’t tell them what to do, we’re just their friend, and we’re trying to help them through a hard time. Sometimes when you’re a kid, and you’re going through all that stuff at home, you just need a friend.”
As one of the largest PALS programs in the nation, according to Kester, their impact is evident in every individual they’ve helped. PALS also gives students the opportunity to develop their character and grow in ways that are beneficial to themselves and the community.
“PALS is something that you have to try out for, and it encourages people to be good and professionalize themselves,” Kester said. “We also do service hours and mentor little kids. It’s really important for those little kids who don’t have anything else that’s consistent in their lives. It encourages us to step out of our comfort zone and be leaders. It’s better for ourselves, the community and the kids that we mentor.
According to Kester, being a PAL also has its challenges; managing service responsibilities on top of homework and extracurriculars is no easy task. However, Kester says that the challenges they face do not compare to the rewards, and the program prepares them for success in the future.
“As a high school student, it’s hard because you have so many different things to do in your life, but at the same time, [our mentors] are there for us,” Kester said. “I can see how it’s challenging for us to step up and lead when you’re already piled with homework, but the advantages and the rewards come along with the challenges. It’s a reward for us to get to learn these skills.”
One of the most significant ways PALS makes an impact in the community is through volunteer work. Service hours are a required part of the PALS program and are intended to teach students how be a part of and benefit their community.
“I’ve grown up in this community my whole life, and by serving, I give back to it,” Kester said. “[We have] so many opportunities that not a lot of communities have.”
Kester, like Allen’s Teaching with Jamaica members, would encourage anyone who has the opportunity, to engage in volunteer opportunities whether they be around the community or abroad.
“I think PALS is such a great opportunity and its such a great class to take,” Kester said. “You get to meet other people and realize that you’re not the only high schooler struggling with things, and everyone is just so vulnerable and real. You also get to have an impact on someone’s life, and they have an impact on yours.”
Teaching With Jamaica and PALS both have their sights set on responding to people in need. They both have an emotional and substantial impact on the individuals they connect with. These educationally-based organizations’ work inspires both the younger and older generations of students in Allen.
“I don’t think you are ever too young to learn that and to find that you matter,” Haskin said. “You have something to contribute. It doesn’t matter how old you are and what your interests are; you have that, and the world needs it.”