'Your turn to fill the stitches': DA's partnership with Urban Ministries of Durham grows
Posted 03/03/2016 04:17PM

The nine-month stretch from February through October can be dangerously bare-shelved for the Urban Ministries of Durham food pantry. The bounty of cans and boxes collected during holiday food drives has dwindled. Yet the need only grows, as winter weather keeps children out of school — and away from the nourishment of school-provided meals. Sometimes, the wooden shelves of the pantry are completely empty.

So when a group of Durham Academy Upper Schoolers hauled in 452 pounds of canned and dried foods on Wednesday, the delight and relief on the face of Gin Jackson, UMD's director of community engagement, was plain to see.

The food drive is but one example of the growing partnership between DA and UMD, a downtown Durham nonprofit that provides food, shelter, clothing and support to people in need. The collective impact of students, faculty and families across all divisions of DA at UMD is "just huge," Jackson said. From Lower Schoolers making hundreds of sandwiches for the UMD Community Café on Unity Day and conducting a massive clothing drive; to the majority of Middle School advisories dedicating their fall service day to various UMD projects; to the Upper School's UMD Club helping children living at the shelter to select holiday gifts for their parents; to teachers collecting household items for resident "move-out kits," DA's commitment to serving Urban Ministries is schoolwide.

Jackson recalled her astonishment at seeing third-grade teacher Richard Meyer drive up to UMD in a school bus that was "absolutely jam-packed" with food donations from the Lower School community last spring.

"It took us hours to unpack it, weigh it, sort it and put it up," she said. "Each child had been sent home with a brown shopping bag and a list of what we needed — and I think almost every kid brought a bag back. It was enough to carry us for a month."

The need for the services that UMD and other poverty-fighting organizations provide is real, Jackson said at an Upper School assembly in January, when she delivered some sobering statistics. Nearly 20 percent of Durham's residents live at or below the poverty line. Children account for nearly 25 percent of North Carolina's homeless population. One in four Durham children go hungry each day.

"What is poverty?" she asked. "In my world, and in the people I see every day, what we mean by poverty is having to make decisions: Do I have housing, or do I have food? Do I have clothing or do I pay for day care? What about toothpaste and soap? Those things aren't covered by food stamps, folks. Medical expenses. Forget about things like going to the movies or doing fun things. And how about transportation to get to work? These are people who can't do all of those things that I consider basic needs. They have to choose."

Each year, one Upper School advisory typically devotes its quarterly community service days to helping UMD with whatever projects are on hand — usually stocking food pantry shelves or sorting clothing donations. Last year, Dr. Harry Thomas' advisees were assigned to UMD, where they were asked to help assemble hygiene kits — plastic bags filled with travel-sized toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant and the like — for distribution to people who are homeless.

"That just helped knock me out of my me-me-me-me-me [mentality]," said Thomas, who teaches English in the Upper School. "... If I run out of deodorant, it's a pain. I have to get in my car, go to the store, use money that I have in my bank account to buy more. It's an aggravation. But I can get more. For the people receiving these kits, that's not the case."

So "struck by the need," Thomas reached out to Upper School community service director Anne McNamara to talk about deepening DA's service through UMD. They decided to help students establish a new UMD Club at the Upper School, with Thomas and Upper School science teacher Meg McNall serving as advisors, and students' interest and commitment has been strong this year. Club members typically take on one project per month, from sorting clothing or stocking pantry shelves, to organizing the recent food drive, to volunteering at Empty Bowls, UMD's big yearly fundraiser.

The most memorable experience with UMD for many club members has also been the most personal. Just before Christmas, each DA student was paired with a child living with his or her family in the UMD shelter, and together, they selected and wrapped holiday gifts from a "Parent Shop" of donated items for the children's parents.

"They were just so ecstatic about everything," recalled junior Ellie George. "My little girl wanted to give her mom a present on that day. So after we picked out her gifts, we cut up little heart shapes, and put them in a box and gave them to her mom. And that was her little mini present before Christmas. It was like getting to spend a day with a baby sister."

Fellow junior Isaac Arocha was paired with someone closer to his own age, a 15-year-old boy. Initially, Arocha was disappointed since he'd hoped to spend time with a younger child, but the pairing turned out to be a great match: "We could have substantive conversations about what was going on," he said.

Junior Liza Aldridge sees her volunteerism with UMD as helping to fulfill her responsibility to be a good neighbor.

"It's just seeing people in our community who are our neighbors and knowing that if I were in that situation, I'd want someone to do the same for me, to help me out," she said. "The things that we've done there are really personal. We get to know the people and see the difference we can make."

That's how McNamara hopes all students experience community service — as helping to lift their neighbors up, not reaching a hand down.

"I think about it more as being a part of a community, a civic engagement. When we help people who are down on their luck, that raises the whole community, it makes all of us better," she said. "We are joining with them to bring their lives up and give them a break and help them get on their feet."

Middle School language arts teacher Ben Michelman, who serves on UMD's community engagement board and is a frequent volunteer, is committed to making community service a mutual exchange for students. Before the Middle School's October community service day, he asked each student in his eighth-grade advisory to bring in a piece of clothing to donate, and then to write a fictionalized story or poem about the article of clothing to be tucked into the item's pocket. With luck, the next owner of the clothing would find the story.

It wasn't much later when an UMD client felt a little something in the pocket of a white sweater she'd selected and went running to find Jackson. "Someone left this in their pocket, and they're going to want it back!" she recalled the client exclaiming.

With Caroline Sapir's story tucked inside, the sweater was no longer just a sweater. It had become so much more — a source of hope.

"... this sweater has been through a lot. It all started in a boutique in Montclair, New Jersey and since then it has been watching memories in the making [as] each and every handmade stitch of cotton is filled with captivating memories. The sweater now needs to begin a new life with a new owner, which is you. I hope you will make many memories with this sweater. It is now your turn to fill the stitches."

An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
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