Tacoma, Washington—Forgoing Saturday-morning cartoons for service on a gloomy spring day, 22 fifth graders were knocking on doors to bring a little sunshine to their neighbours.
Students from Helen B. Stafford Elementary School in Tacoma delivered flowers in hand-painted pots, to thank the community for supporting the school.
To be part of this community service activity, interested students filled out an application, answering questions like, “What is a positive impact you’ve had on another person?” and “Why is community service important?” Unbeknownst to the philanthropic youth, their day of service would also earn them a ticket to WE Day.
“We wanted to pick kids that were actually interested in community service,” says Adrienne Petrie, a school counsellor at Stafford.
“We created the event on Saturday without telling them anything about WE Day and then said, ‘Hey, by the way, since you were willing to give your time on a weekend to do community service, we’re also taking you to WE Day.’”
Stafford Elementary is compassionate to the core, thanks to Adrienne and her husband, TJ, both counsellors at the school and huge supporters of WE. They’re taking a creative approach to giving back, and teaching their students that they have the power to change other people’s lives with kindness.
Students started the school year in September 2017 by sending worry dolls to students in Rockport, Texas, following the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey. In October they held a “Sock-Tober” sock drive for local youth in transitional housing. They’ve also sent stuffed owls to a local veterans’ hospital, made felt hearts for the grief centre at a local children’s hospital and mailed clay cherry blossoms to a school in Japan to mark the National Cherry Blossom Festival, “just to thank them for being friends.”
Their actions to support developing communities far away have been just as, if not more, imaginative.
When the school decided to raise money for WE Charity’s Water Pillar in Tanzania, Adrienne and TJ built a wishing well in the school’s foyer. A drainpipe running from the second floor down into a large bucket allowed students to drop their change into the well. They clearly had fun with it—in just two weeks the 500 students from kindergarten to fifth grade raised almost USD $2,000.
Teachers throughout the school embraced the campaign as well: in math classes donations were used to teach arithmetic, and phys-ed teachers had students hold a water walk on the outdoor track. TJ hopes that in the future they can fundraise to donate goats to a developing community—and not just so that he has an excuse to bring a petting zoo to the school.
“Everything that we’re about is WE. It has been ingrained into our school. All of our expectations are about ‘we’ not ‘me,’ and we put it in our little chants, we put it in our little songs that we come up with and our posters,” says Adrienne.
The duo was first introduced to WE through the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative (TWCI) a little over a year ago. A partnership between the University of Washington Tacoma and Tacoma Public Schools, the initiative aims to foster children’s social and emotional development, in addition to helping them excel academically. TWCI provided schools throughout Tacoma with tickets and transportation to last year’s WE Day event. After the event, Adrienne and TJ were hooked.
With two of the three Petrie children attending Stafford, the brood is a WE Family as well. From school classrooms to their own living room, Adrienne and TJ incorporate WE values into their lessons. “Is that a ‘me’ behaviour or a ‘we’ behaviour?” is an oft-used phrase.
“We’re blessed with the unique opportunity to show our students what family looks like, because some of them sadly don’t know,” reflects TJ.
Adrienne’s goal is to teach kids—whether her own or her students—that every small action they take can make a big impact in people’s lives and in the world. She teaches them to always offer kindness, even if it’s just a smile.
“Kindness overcomes a lot of the fear and hate in our world,” she says.
“I think what’s amazing is that we have a high-poverty population here, but you wouldn’t know it because of how much the kids want to give back,” says TJ. “It’s fun to watch them realize that their little givings don’t have to be a monetary thing, they can be an effort-based thing. It can be a planting flowers and delivering them. It doesn’t have to be a huge drive or a huge event.”
Many students at Stafford access the local foodbank with their families. When the school organized a food drive those same students brought in items they received from the foodbank, so they could be donated back. It’s that same spirit of giving, ingrained into the fabric of Stafford by Adrienne and TJ, that had students give up their Saturday to volunteer.
“The kids were genuinely there on Saturday because they wanted to do something for the community,” says Lindsay Beerbower, assistant principal at Stafford. “They were excited to do stuff with adult supervision and support, because some of them don’t have that. Adrienne and TJ come up with such great ideas. The time and energy they put into these activities is just incredible.”
For all the good they have instilled in their students, Adrienne and TJ believe that WE, and service, has improved their lives as well.
“It has been nice having the WE organization as a focus, and knowing that there is a community to back us up,” says Adrienne. “Having a whole group of people, a whole stadium of people, come together at WE Day just to be kind is so powerful for me.”
“We don’t often get to see or hear from the people that are like-minded in service or in their commitment to helping others,” adds TJ. “To know that WE is an organization you can trust has been nice.”
Zoe Demarco is a writer and production manager for WE Stories. A third generation journalist, she has a natural curiosity for other people’s lives.