January 25, 2013

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

A legacy of love: Family values guide students’ special effort to help children in shelters

St. Matthew School students David Denise and Maddie Tarowsky, center, team up to wrap books as gifts for children in homeless shelters. The effort stemmed from the Indianapolis school’s seventh-grade class to collect books for the school’s library and to share them with children in need. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

St. Matthew School students David Denise and Maddie Tarowsky, center, team up to wrap books as gifts for children in homeless shelters. The effort stemmed from the Indianapolis school’s seventh-grade class to collect books for the school’s library and to share them with children in need. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

As a parent, Chris Straley looks for opportunities to stress the importance of family—the one we are born into, and also the ones that connect us in larger ways.

Part of Straley’s approach is tied to an incredible discovery concerning his grandmother.

“She had a variety store, and she always looked out for the poor,” recalls Straley, a member of St. Matthew the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis. “Even though it was a store she made money from, when she died we found a shoebox full of IOUs that she never anticipated collecting. People would pick out shoes and clothes for their kids, and sometimes they wouldn’t have money to pay for them. She just told them to write an IOU, and she took care of it from there.”

That concern for people in need became part of a special project this academic year at St. Matthew School in Indianapolis, a project led by the seventh-grade students, including Straley’s son, Sam. The students directed a book drive for the school’s library that netted nearly 2,300 books, with many of the surplus books being wrapped and given as Christmas and birthday presents to children who live at family shelters.

“I think we underestimate our children’s ability to do things without us,” Straley says. “Just by giving them a little direction, they can do so much.”

Straley jump-started the drive during a conversation with Sam on the way home from school one day last fall.

The father told the son about a meeting he had as a member of St. Matthew’s school commission. During the meeting, Straley had listened to a plan to raise about $5,000 to buy new books for the library. Knowing that his family had “close to 50 books sitting on a shelf at home,” Straley figured his family wasn’t alone in that regard. So he proposed the idea for a “Books in Need” program led by students, opening up the possibility of using funds for other school needs.

He then proposed the idea to Sam.

“I always try to get him to open his eyes to things that aren’t directly in front of him,” Straley says. “I asked him if he wanted to be part of it. I knew if I could get him interested, a lot of boys would follow.”

“We were in the car when he threw the idea at me,” Sam, 13, says. “We thought if we got a lot of friends together, we could start a group. I like to start things. I told my friends, they told their friends, and we got this together.”

The students sent e-mails to the school families asking for books. They also included a notice in the school newsletter. And with the permission of principal David Smock, they organized an incentive where a student didn’t have to wear a school uniform one day if he or she donated five books.

“Nobody asked me about getting service hours for this,” Straley says. “They just see it as a good idea, and they wanted to do something about it. Natural leaders stepped up. ‘Let’s do this.’ ‘What about this?’ They fired up their own ideas, which is always pretty cool.”

Maddie Moores is one of the seventh-grade students who led the effort.

“To me, it’s really fun because you’re doing this with your friends, and you’re helping other children who need help,” Maddie says. “It’s a good feeling.”

As the books were collected, the students spent several afternoons after school dividing the books into appropriate age and gender categories. They then wrapped two or three books together in Christmas and birthday wrapping paper, as gifts for children in family shelters.

“I wasn’t really expecting so many books,” Sam says. “We were overwhelmed with wrapping, but it was worth it.”

The students’ efforts impressed their principal.

“They’ve run with it,” Smock says. “Reading is so important to everything. If we can get our younger students to read early on and get them excited, that’s what we want to do. We want to engage them so they’ll go back to the library and get more books.

“And the best part of the drive is the students getting to deliver the books to help other people, too. We have a mission in the Catholic Church to reach out to others.”

It’s a mission for teachers, students and parents, Sam says. It’s a lesson about extended family he has learned from his father.

“He’s always about donating, thinking about other people, and helping people in need,” Sam says. “That’s what I like about him. It’s pretty cool.” †

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