High school students find their confidence in the big return gained from giving back.
When Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas this past August—leaving in its wake record-breaking floods across the state’s Gulf Coast—America answered with relief efforts led by the Red Cross, FEMA, private charities, and everyday citizens. Among those who contributed were a group of students from Rocky Point, New York’s Glen Cove High School, at the ready to help Texas rebuild.
“I announced it on the PA and it got kids going,” says Mary Ellen Cuomno of getting students involved in the school’s Hurricane Harvey recovery campaign. As the leader of the Key Club at Glen Cove—guided by the WE Schools curriculum—the special education teacher is charged with the responsibility of inspiring compassion school-wide.
Educator Mary Ellen turned to service learning to inform Glen Cove’s young men and women about the world around them—from local concerns to global issues—with the aim of awakening students’ sense of social consciousness.
With this being the high school’s first year taking part in the WE Schools program, faculty weren’t sure what to expect when Mary Ellen took to the PA in September, but the zealous response of the student body was vindication enough for the teacher and her colleagues to conclude, “Wow, so we can do this.”
For sophomore student, Julia Perfetti, there was never a doubt that the WE program would take off at Glen Cove—that’s why she and her friend, Douaa Ahmed, suggested it in the first place.
“I was a part of WE Schools when I was in middle school, and I just loved it,” she gushes. So, when it came time to move to Glen Cove for her freshman year, she promptly sussed out an ally, which she found in Mrs. Cuomno. With the educator’s help, Julia and Douaa were invited to a meeting of minds between them and the school’s principal, Antonio Santana.
Mary Ellen recalls these early beginnings with a smile. “They kept bothering me all year, saying ‘we have to become a WE School. We have to become a WE School.’ So, I said, ‘okay, let’s go see the principal.’”
Becoming a WE School was an easy sell to the principal; the way he sees it, service learning “should be mandatory.” The importance of fostering compassion inside and outside his school’s halls is a top priority for the educator. “I really want my students to get involved. I think that’s one of the pieces missing from public education,” he says. “We’ve been focusing on [academic] content and forgotten the civics part of public education.”
For the same reason Julia counts the blood drive for Hurricane Harvey survivors among the most affecting volunteer events she’s taken part in, she can’t help but exude pure glee when talking about how WE Schools has empowered her to shape the world she wants to see. It all boils down to a few words of wisdom that Mary Ellen’s husband once shared with her, and now she shares with her students, including Julia: “If you want to feel good about yourself, go do something for somebody else… and don’t let them know you did it.”
At age 15, Julia lives by this sentiment, dedicating her free time to learning about the needs of others and helping individuals fulfill those needs. For her, this means everything from volunteering at the local homeless shelter and soup kitchen with the club to leading her own charitable pursuits, including planning events in support of the Children’s Tumor Foundation.
The latter is a cause especially close to Julia’s heart. A non-profit medical organization, the Children’s Tumor Foundation helps kids living with neurofibromatosis—a condition Julia was born with herself. Just knowing she can make a difference in patients’ lives reinforces her desire to give back even more. She shares, “Seeing that I can help other people really means a lot because I’ve seen people who have a lot worse cases than I do.”
Motivating students like Julia is an inspiring part of the job, according to Mary Ellen. Through the WE Schools program, she has widened students’ perspectives, unfurling the pathway to positive change. “Students found out that there was a soup kitchen in our town; there’s a homeless shelter in our town—nobody knew, none of these kids knew,” she explains matter-of-factly. But, since volunteering through the school’s club, students are now “getting it”—much to Mary Ellen’s pride.
Adding to the educator’s impact is the knowledge that these lessons will give way to personal growth in her students’ lives. As she explains, “When you do service learning, what it does for the student is it makes them feel good about themselves… and that carries on over into academic learning.”
Julia agrees. A passionate champion of volunteerism and the effect it has on self-confidence, she is as ardent a supporter of WE Schools and its benefits. “WE really shows you that you can make a difference, if you put your mind to it,” she declares. “It shows you that we can make a change in the world.”