Visitation third graders form ‘Holy Heroes’ NGO

One class of “Holy Heroes” discuss the messages of Pope Francis’ April 2017 technology (TED) address –discarded people, social pain and how they can help alleviate those issues. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — You’ve probably heard of, maybe even know of some NGOs, non-governmental organizations. They are non-profit, voluntary citizens’ groups organized locally, nationally or internationally, and are often community-based. One of the local NGOs, Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City, is both locally and nationally organized.

I’ll bet you haven’t heard of an NGO organized by third graders! Meet the Holy Heroes of Visitation School. The kids formed their NGO focusing on the betterment of the Kansas City community, particularly those in need, the discarded.

Third-grade teacher Eileen O’Connor had considered devising something for her students that would make a difference in their lives, in the lives of others, and foster the message of civility and inclusiveness. She proposed the idea of an NGO to Visitation’s principal, Vince Cascone, at the end of the 2016-17 school year, and he commissioned her to further develop the idea and create an action plan.

At a project-based learning conference last summer, O’Connor and her fellow third-grade teachers, Suzanne Geha and Lainee Tarbe, pulled various ideas together and visualized an NGO incorporating Math, Social Studies, English, Language Arts and Religion. In project-based learning, students are engaged in a focused project for an extended period and — through investigating and responding to a real, complex question, problem or challenge,— gain knowledge and skills.

The teachers could see ways they could use concepts of identifying needs and defining problems to build a structure including fund raising, money management, task sharing and information presentation. They also were shown how to incorporate the learning method into their daily curriculum and felt energized by the possibilities.

As the school year began, the three teachers introduced the NGO to their students, helping them understand its purpose and how it works. The kids then figured out the problems they wanted to solve.

The entire grade developed their NGO’s name, their Mission Statement, defined who they are and what issues they wanted to tackle. The name they chose is the Holy Heroes.

Their Mission Statement: “The Third Grade Visitation Students, with Jesus as our role model, promise to be loving members of our community by solving problems using our talents, treasures and time.”

They defined the Holy Heroes as: “caring, respectful, generous, trustworthy, inspiring, Jesus-centered, cooperative, unique, honest and show perseverance.”

The kids chose to address four categories of need: Loneliness, Veterans, Homelessness and the Environment. The teachers chose related organizations for the students to learn about and support. One of those organizations was Sheffield Place.

For their first NGO activity, the third-grade classes held a jeans day fundraiser — In exchange for a donation of a specified amount, students and teachers could wear jeans to school on a future date. They were in charge of announcements, signs and advertising, as well as collecting and counting the donations. They raised about $560.

Sheffield Place was founded to help homeless women and their children recover from trauma related to addiction and other issues, and get back on their feet. Since 1991, it has helped more than 1,000 families. The third graders paid Sheffield Place a visit, and learned its mission and what was needed. Through their own observations and later discussions, they narrowed the needs to playground equipment and bedding. What kind of an impact could they make with $560? When they learned that their funds could purchase seven sets of sheets and seven sets of towels, the vote was unanimous – sheets and towels.

At a recent Holy Heroes class meeting, they discussed a video of Pope Francis’ April 2017 TED talk. In it he spoke of interactions, a “future of you’s” and the present of discarded peoples. Using posters, each class illustrated one of the three messages in the pope’s talk and related it to their NGO’s mission. Later, after the poster presentations and discussions, one student from each class spoke with the Catholic Key about the TED talk and Pope Francis’ three messages.

His first message was about the world’s discarded people — the homeless, the unemployed, migrants, the sick and prisoners— “As I meet,” he said, “or lend an ear to those who are sick, to the migrants who face terrible hardships in search of a brighter future, to prison inmates who carry a hell of pain inside their hearts, and to those, many of them young, who cannot find a job, I often find myself wondering: ‘Why them and not me?’”

“I, myself, was born in a family of migrants; my father, my grandparents, like many other Italians, left for Argentina and met the fate of those who are left with nothing. I could have very well ended up among today’s ‘discarded’ people.

“And that’s why I always ask myself, deep in my heart: ‘Why them and not me?’”

Kellan Wiebe thought the pain in the world could be overcome if people made an effort to help others, “We need to put our life into their life,” she said, “acknowledge their pain, and help them get things they need.”

Ms. O’Connor’s class suggested a brighter future can be had if everybody sticks together, because it brings hope. “Hope is the door that opens onto the future,” the pope said, “Hope is a humble, hidden seed of life that, with time, will develop into a large tree… a tiny flicker of light that feeds on hope is enough to shatter the shield of darkness. A single individual is enough for hope to exist.”

The pope’s second message urged greater equality and social inclusion along with scientific and technological innovation. “How wonderful would it be,” he said, “while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us.”

He suggested how wonderful it would it be if solidarity became the default attitude in political, economic and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples and countries.

He added that only by educating people to a true solidarity “will we be able to overcome the ‘culture of waste,’ … food and goods but, first and foremost, the people who are cast aside by … techno-economic systems.”

Mrs. Geha’s class thought, “We’re all equal persons on the inside, so it doesn’t matter what’s on the outside. God gave us all the gift of life.”

Heads nodded as their teacher continued that even little people have a lot to give. A smile to a lonely person on the playground can brighten their day. Uniqueness is equal, she said, because every single life is important.

Andrew Hoolehan later said that when one person is kind to another, they can make a huge difference, and if others follow his or her example, the world won’t be as miserable.

The third message was about tenderness. Ms Tarbe’s class had decorated a poster with words describing tenderness, kindness, empathy. “Love shows through our actions.”

Pope Francis said tenderness “… is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands. Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future. To listen also to the silent cry of our common home … earth. Tenderness means to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.

“Tenderness is the language of the young children, of those who need the other. … This is tenderness: being on the same level as the other.

“God himself descended into Jesus to be on our level. This is the same path the Good Samaritan took. This is the path that Jesus himself took. He lowered himself, he lived his entire human existence practicing the real, concrete language of love.

“Yes, tenderness is the path of choice for the strongest, most courageous men and women. Tenderness is not weakness; it is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility.”

Charlotte Turner spoke of bullying as the opposite of tenderness. “It’s not fair to bully people for fun,” she said. “If no one stops the bully, the world could turn gray, because people would stop caring.”

And that’s the root of the Holy Heroes NGO. The third graders care, for one another, and for those less fortunate, society’s discards. ❏


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October 20, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph