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Giving back to communities year round

New York Teacher
Giving back to communities
Jonathan Fickies

Each December, our union’s annual toy drive and holiday party support students living in temporary housing — a number now reaching nearly 120,000 students citywide.

Our schools are more than academic institutions. They are caring institutions and, as educators, we understand that caring for the communities we work in is part of teaching and learning. We hope to create a ripple of hope, advocacy and support through all our endeavors as a union.

Each December, our union’s annual toy drive and holiday party support students living in temporary housing — a number now reaching nearly 120,000 students citywide. Many members contribute new toys, and the union hosts a party for students in need with a Santa, DJ and graffiti artist. The students play basketball, have their nails painted and enjoy games and art projects.

Teresa Bello, a pre-K teacher at PS 185 in Harlem, volunteers at the holiday party every year. “It’s lovely to see the delight on the students’ faces,” she says. “This might be their only opportunity to be part of the season, the joy and the laughter.”

In her own childhood, the only way Bello celebrated Christmas and other holidays was through school. “It makes me want to pay it forward and be there for these children, be that role model and share that sparkle with them,” she said.

This work doesn’t just happen during the holiday season. With more families in crisis, UFT members have stepped up. Schools throughout the city offer food pantries, community closets stocked with clothing and laundry cards for families so children are nourished and have clean clothing for school.

Paraprofessional Paula Thomas is the chapter leader at P4 in Fresh Meadows, Queens, a school with many students on the autism spectrum. She helped put together a successful series of conversations and events for parents and guardians of children with autism.

“We created a platform for networking,” Thomas said. “Everyone leaves with a contact — someone who understands the world of neuro-diversity and our concerns and hopes as parents of children with autism.”

Participants told her after one such event that they went in as individuals and came out as a community.

New York State Assembly Member Khaleel Anderson, a former District 75 student, spoke at one of the events. “If you walked in feeling hopeless and alone, you did not leave feeling that way,” Thomas said. “You left feeling inspired, educated, uplifted and not alone.”

PS 38 in East Harlem provides a community boutique stocked with coats, clothing, shoes, toiletries and more.

“We set up appointments with parents and help them feel welcomed and cared for,” said PS 38 school secretary Jessica Rivera. “We want people to know there’s always hope and there’s always someone willing to help.”

Rivera says the pantry also teaches students how to be more compassionate. “Families are very grateful,” she said.

Our members do so much for their communities, and they do it without fanfare. As educators, we know that when we take care of students’ basic needs and students and families feel a sense of belonging, students come to school ready to learn. We do it because we care about our students and their families, and we want children to thrive. It’s an intrinsic part of our role as New York City public school educators.