Every November our school has a food drive for a local pantry, in which we practice the Catholic social justice teaching of caring for the poor. We have worked with The Heart Ministry Center for several years, and we have a very close relationship with them. As our students collect food with Thanksgiving in mind, our goal is to help provide a special dinner for each family. To make it fun we assign specific food items for each day. We have Macaroni Monday, Tuna Tuesday, Wheaties Wednesday, Thanksgiving Thursday, and Free-for-all Friday.
I see how generous my third-grade students can be during the food drive. In fact, I see them being generous to their classmates everyday. We talk about being kind and loving our neighbors. But when they think of neighbors, they think of people they know or who are physically close to them. It can be easy for them to be kind to their classmates and the neighbors on their block. But when we collect food in November, they might not realize that this food goes to people in their city they do not know; I have to explain that these people are our neighbors too. I use this opportunity to explain that our neighbors include everyone in our city, state, country, and world.
This year, I expanded the idea of caring for the poor and helping our neighbors in our city to a more personal level. Birthdays are special and should be celebrated. (Third graders love birthdays!) They are traditionally celebrated with a cake and candles, but for some families, that can be a costly expense. I proposed a special event to my principal in honor of the feast day of our school’s patron, St. Margaret Mary. Each family was asked to build a birthday bag. In each colorful gift bag, they were to include their favorite box of cake mix, a can of frosting, and a box of candles. Our students would make homemade cards to put in the bags.
The birthday bags poured into our room! Each time a student brought in a birthday bag, another student would call out, “Birthday Bags!” and the class would respond “God Bless You!” We quickly ran out of space—every empty shelf and all the corners of the room were overflowing with bags, 270 in all!
After talking to several parents, my students, and the director of the Heart Ministry Center, I realized that this project was successful in three ways. First, parents were happy that this project was a personal experience for their child. After all, everyone is familiar with a birthday and the students were excited to help people make their birthday celebrations special. Second, shopping for the supplies to make the birthday bags was a fun activity for the whole family. My students loved picking out their favorite cake mix and frosting to share with someone. I had no idea there were so many different types of birthday candles! Finally, the director of the Heart Ministry Center told me that many people had a happy birthday because of this project. Making these connections made the teaching of caring for the poor memorable for my students and our school.