For Durham Academy students and faculty, service to others is a part of life throughout the year, but during the holiday season, these efforts shine even more brightly. From the youngest to the oldest learners, members of the DA community are looking beyond themselves to help brighten the season for others in our community. The following is a mere sampling of the myriad ways that students, faculty, staff and parents have sought to spread joy and comfort this season.
At the Preschool, students continued their tradition of creating handmade holiday decorations for residents of Emerald Pond retirement community. Preschool Aftercare students then delivered their creations and helped decorate the tree in the center’s commons area.
As they have for many years, first-graders crafted holiday decorations for the Ronald McDonald House of Durham, a home away from home for families of seriously ill children receiving treatment at Duke University Hospital. Students The children also brought in toys and gifts for families staying at the Ronald McDonald House while their children are undergoing medical treatment at Duke University Medical Center.
Each year, Lower School faculty celebrate the season with a brunch paired with an opportunity to support a local organization in some way. At this year’s brunch, faculty brought in books to help supplement classroom libraries at Durham Nativity School, a tuition-free independent school serving boys from financially challenged families. Third-grade teacher Jeff Burch visited DNS for a professional development workshop at the beginning of the school year and “noticed their classroom libraries were thin, especially compared to the ones I am used to seeing.” DNS’ head of school shared a wish list of books from which DA faculty made their purchases.
“I know when I taught in inner city [Indianapolis], I wished for a classroom library all the time,” Burch said. “Sometimes getting the right book in the right kid’s hands can make all the difference.”
At the second grade’s Bedtime Bonanza — a cozily festive event marked by students wearing pajamas to school, lots of bedtime-worthy stories and eating breakfast for lunch — they packaged handmade bookmarks and books that their families donated for children staying at the Durham Rescue Mission’s women and children’s shelter.
As part of the seventh grade’s Looking Beyond Ourselves advisory curriculum, students have been learning about the needs of the families at Durham’s Nehemias Espiritu de Vida church — “most of whom are immigrants, and many of whom lack the means to provide for their children as much as they would like to” seventh-grade team leader Kim Aitken explained.
The week prior to Thanksgiving, students began work on a joint math curriculum and advisory project that included researching and calculating to determine how much money they would have to spend to purchase items that children most need, in addition to a few toys that match the children’s interests. The seventh-graders raised the funds for their gifts by hosting a Parents Night Out fundraiser for Lower School families in late November. They then boarded buses for Target to make their purchases, armed with math worksheets to help them stay on budget. Students then wrapped the gifts for the children, hand-painted decorative holiday plates for their families and loaded them into cars headed for the church.
“Just like our activities earlier in the year that helped the students relate to hunger and housing issues in our community, this project is another way we are encouraging our students to ‘look beyond themselves,’ ” Aitken said in an email to parents. “We hope it helps your child learn some necessary real-life math skills while allowing him or her to understand different life experiences and situations in our community, not to mention partaking in the joy of giving at this time of year!”
The giving spirit is also at the heart of the Upper School's Share Your Holiday Spirit program, which has been running strong for more than 30 years. Through this effort, Upper School advisories shop for gifts — ranging from toys to essentials like underwear — for individuals through the Share Your Christmas program. This program, run by the Durham County Department of Social Services and the Triangle Nonprofit & Volunteer Leadership Center, matches families and individuals in need (individuals served are 200 percent or more below the Durham poverty level) with sponsors.
“Many of those that DA advisories sponsored this year are foster children living apart from their mothers and fathers,” Upper School community service coordinator Anne McNamara said. “Some have been in more than one foster home in their short lives. A couple of teens that have been adopted have aged out of foster care and are working to support themselves without the support of parents to help. And there are a number of single older adults who are disabled or otherwise challenged who live alone and who have very limited means of support.”
In addition, a number of faculty members also asked to serve as sponsors, allowing the Upper School to adopt a total of 75 people, the most that DA has ever sponsored.
“Each year, William Edwards volunteers his time and strength to load up all the gifts that have been purchased, wrapped and tagged, and carry them to the Volunteer Center Distribution Center at Northgate — more than one trip is required for his sleigh!” McNamara said.
Several members of the Upper School Urban Ministries of Durham Club took a few hours off from studying for exams on Saturday morning to help set up a "Christmas Shop" for children staying at the UMD shelter. The DA volunteers paired up with children to help them shop for and wrap holiday gifts for their parents.
In mid-November, the Upper School’s Habitat for Humanity Club spent a Saturday hammering, drilling and painting away, with something pretty incredible to show for it at the end of the day — a nature-themed playhouse, complete with a deck. The playhouse is one of several that Durham organizations built for Habitat for Humanity of Durham’s Home for the Holidays benefit auction.
Spearheading the construction effort were Habitat club leaders junior Ella Virkler and senior Mallory Trapani, and they were joined by an army of fellow students, faculty and parents.
The playhouses are all now on display on the lawn of the Durham Performing Arts Center, and bidding closes at 5 p.m. Friday.
The Upper School’s Bundle Up Durham Club has collected dozens of gently used coats over the past several weeks through its annual T-shirt sale and coat drive, which wrapped up on Friday. Since its founding in 2015, Bundle Up Durham has provided hundreds of winter coats to homeless children in the Durham Public Schools system. In addition, the organization recently took a collection of coats to Latino Educational Achievement Partnership for pre-kindergarten students.
“I think about kids my age or just a little bit younger sitting out in the cold when we're so fortunate here at Durham Academy,” said junior Benny Klein, one of the co-founders of Bundle Up Durham. “This is something we have the ability to help with.”