By Angel Santiago
I was a shy kid in elementary school. After first-grade, my grades improved but I was not nearly as outgoing a person as I am today. I was self-conscious and always afraid that I was doing something wrong. This same sentiment continued into middle school. Fortunately, it didn’t last too long.
In my sixth-grade year at Vineland’s Veterans Memorial School, I was placed in Mark Melamed’s homeroom. Melamed was a renowned educator throughout the Vineland Public School District known for his work with his Gabriel Project. Several years prior to my sixth-grade year, Melamed created the Gabriel Project, a foundation that brought children from developing nations to the United States for life saving heart surgery.
Melamed saw something in several of us. Although the entire class participated in the service projects that Melamed weaved into his lesson plans, a core of that class would remain involved for years after we left sixth grade. Jessy Lopez, Atyia Arthur, Sean Shropshire, Brad Harrison, Donny Tharp, Michael Albano, and Steven Schimmel: I know these names may not mean much to anyone reading this, but to me, this was one of the greatest benefits of the Gabriel Project—lifelong friends.
We all came from different parts of Vineland, from Center City to the farms of East Vineland, but we had one common goal: making the world a better place. We didn’t just do our schoolwork together—on weekends, afterschool, and during breaks, we lived together. We helped saved a life together.
After our public school education, most of us went off to college. My best friend Brad and I went touring and pursuing a career in music but stayed involved in a limited role with the Gabriel Project. The project flourished and Melamed’s creation became an entity that involved celebrities and prominent members of the community.
When I came back to Vineland to pursue my teaching career, Melamed was the first to lend a hand. He offered his classroom for many of my observational hours. During my student teaching, Melamed informed me that he was ill. I knew it was severe, but this man moved mountains, and I was sure he could overcome this obstacle.
Melamed succumbed to his battle with pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2013. The future of the Gabriel Project was in limbo. Melamed’s brother Ken, his longtime friend and confidant Debbie Albano, and I decided to keep the project afloat. We did well for a few years. We held yearly events that were successful, but nowhere near the scope of what Melamed had built. This was his creation, and to continue the project in the same vein, without his many years of experience, would be next to impossible.
In 2017, we decided to put the Gabriel Project on hiatus. I felt somewhat defeated and guilty. I was a new dad trying to navigate teaching and a part-time job. During the same time, I had aspirations of starting an after-school club at the school in Gloucester Township where I now taught: Loring Flemming Elementary School.
The idea of Young People of Character, or YPOC, had been something that I had pondered for a couple of years. The absence of the Gabriel Project left a void that I needed to fill, and it was about time for me to bring something of my own to the table and there was no better time than the present to get the club fully functional.
Though Melamed’s Gabriel Project offered me the inspiration of community service, I wanted YPOC to be something that I could grow with. After some discussion with my administration, online research, and digging into the community, I had several different models I wanted to develop.
Reaching at-risk students was something I wanted to address. Being a member of Loring Flemming’s data team gave me an opportunity to see some of the data related to our at-risk students. Like many schools, we had an overrepresentation of males of color who were being referred for special education services. That demographic jumped out as an area of concentration. Although, young men of color were those who were most affected, I saw others who were in need as well. I found this to be an opportunity for my students to learn from one another despite their economic or academic situations.
When we discuss leadership, the focus should be on a diverse group of individuals leading us because, essentially, our future leaders should reflect the population that they serve. I had to take a long hard look at the demographics of Loring Flemming.
The community of Loring Flemming is a microcosm of the state of New Jersey. In one township, we have students who come from communities that are considered upper-middle class, while less than a mile away, we have students who come from neighborhoods well below the poverty threshold. These students ate lunch together, worked in academic groups together, and played together at recess.
This offered clarity to my mission. I wasn’t going to concentrate on just one demographic. That’s not how inclusiveness works. I was going to have kids from all different walks of life, academic abilities, genders, ethnicities and behaviors work together for some common goals: to build self-esteem, to better their lives at home, to take pride in their school, and to build the foundation to become the leaders of tomorrow. Most importantly, they would do this together, despite their differences. These common goals became the pillars of YPOC.
Love of self
In a club that would run for eight weeks, tackling self-esteem was our initial priority. There is one common thread that all the most effective leaders in our world share: confidence. Preadolescent students struggle with this concept.
Whether it be the media, racial or economic biases, or systemic conditioning, the world is built to knock us down at an early age. Let’s face it, if we cannot learn to love ourselves, or tune out the negativity of the world, then we cannot afford the energy to help others.
In 2017, before social-emotional learning (SEL) was built into our curricula at Loring Flemming, YPOC served a similar purpose. We focused on goal setting, positive affirmations and self-talk. Students wrote letters to their future selves highlighting their goals, offering encouragement, and lastly, thanking their future selves for all of their accomplishments and hard work.
During remote learning, we tried something a bit different. Scrolling through teacher-created content on the app TikTok, I found a teacher by the name of Donovan Hall from Oakland, California. He specializes in emotional growth with his sixth-grade students. To watch Hall interact with his students is inspiring to say the least. He understands his students and their backgrounds. There are several instances where Hall knows that his students must help watch their siblings, so he invites the younger siblings to his remote-learning classroom.
I invited Hall to come to one of our YPOC sessions on Zoom. We held an hourlong session on positive affirmations, self-love and feeling good about ourselves. There were questions that prompted my YPOC students to uncover the issues that held down their confidence levels. Hall as also offered some exercises that helped my students to reach a higher level of self-love. All in all, this YPOC session was well received and could not have come at a better time.
Love of family
Family is important to me, but family is a very fluid concept. The nuclear family is no longer a common configuration, so whenever we involve families in our activities, we include anyone who is considered family by the students.
The students of YPOC have participated in many events with a family mindset behind them. They have written family chore coupons to motivate themselves to become better family members. Two of our favorite schoolwide family-oriented events that YPOC helps with are Donuts with Dudes and Muffins with My Lady.
These two events were established by a committee of Loring Flemming educators and Principal Aaron Rose. They are a modification of Donuts with Dad and Muffins with Mom, being sensitive about the array of different family configurations within our school. These events continue to grow every single year. The YPOC kids help with breaking down after the event is over, as well as chaperoning kindergarteners to their classes once school begins. The news covered the event and one of our students was interviewed about it. Those are the moments that will last a lifetime.
Love of school
Our students spend much of their lives inside our school building. Taking pride in our school is one of the pillars that I think to be essential. It is also one of the pillars that I believe transcends all school environments and can be used for any character-building club.
Last year, we had a great group of students who worked very well together. In collaboration with the custodial staff, YPOC embarked on a two-session mission to beautify the school. The custodial staff provided us with the proper supplies, and we swept, scrubbed and mopped the floors and tables for our fellow classmates in the fourth and fifth grades.
The following week we scanned acres and acres of the school grounds and picked up trash that was lying on our playgrounds and our fields. Although these acts were simple, they found a new appreciation for those professionals who rarely get any recognition: our custodial staff.
Love of community
Lastly, but most importantly, is our commitment to community service. Since its founding, YPOC has worked toward the culminating event of our club year: Gloucester Township’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.
In the years prior to COVID, our students would don their YPOC shirts and invite their families and friends to all participate in different service activities within the Gloucester Township community. Every year for MLK Day of Service, the students of YPOC made thousands of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, created homemade cards, and participated in numerous activities to help those who are in need. Last year, one of our members even won a service medal.
The most inspirational aspect of that day is for my students to witness the power of what can happen when you bring a community together for a common goal and how they became a part of that power.
Although starting a service or character-building club can be a rewarding endeavor, there are some challenges that accompany the process. First and foremost, you must look at your local demographics. The challenges that face different communities and grade levels can vary.
In your elementary grade levels, some of the concepts around character building and community service can be abstract, which means you will have to teach them. This can take time and planning. But this type of club would lend a needed enrichment to the SEL skills we are currently injecting into our daily lessons.
Planning, especially for the young ones, is essential. Parents, guardians and family members must be informed for the students to get the most out of their experience. We are very fortunate to have transportation in our district, but for some of the events that were held off school grounds, there were some challenges with attendance. The Remind app, or any other parent communication application, can help mitigate transportation issues.
Funding can be an issue. I usually get shirts for my students and acquiring the funds can be tricky. I have seen some clubs raise funds for various reasons, but there always seems to be red tape when it comes to acquiring funds for any project. I understand why: districts want to make sure everything is by the book and that they cannot be held liable for misuse of the funds.
On top of that, each district has different procedures about acquiring funding. Proper documentation of any funds acquired is essential. Depending on how big the project is, this can be a job unto itself. There is help out there. There are tons of stakeholders who are willing to donate to your cause. You just have to make them aware of what you need.
The number of students participating can be tricky to navigate as well. It may seem that the larger the group, the better. Although I wish I could have everyone in YPOC, I believe the efficacy of its lessons start to dwindle when the group is too large.
When you have a large group, planning, organizing, communicating, and acquiring funds all become more difficult. Finding a manageable number of students is key. The sweet spot for me is around 15-20 upper-elementary-aged students. That number may vary if you facilitate a club in middle school or high school, but the key here is to make it manageable.
Let’s face it, our jobs are tough enough as it is. Set up your group for success early on. That could mean just tackling one or two projects to ensure a successful outcome. It is better to do one or two things well, than to do multiple projects with limited success.
Remote learning has been tough. It has caused most of our in-person community service projects to be cancelled. With the pandemic looming, the easy decision would have been to postpone our club until next year. Yet, that was never even an option for me, nor for my students. I must also commend Loring Flemming with moving forward virtually with all of its clubs.
We just wrapped up our YPOC club for this year, and we had to become very creative. I saw this as an opportunity to invite leaders of the community to share their experiences with my YPOC students. We had guests such as Donovan Hall, the aforementioned TikTok SEL teacher. In addition, a teacher from my hometown, Chris Hannah, and his deaf dog, Cole, gave a presentation about standing up for those who may be different. Hannah also helped us partner with the Vineland Veterans Home to deliver holiday cards that the YPOC students had made.
Some of my students, with permission from their parents, even joined me in donating to a human voice bank, offering our voices so that individuals who suffer from medical conditions that affect their voices can have a vocal option that matches their appearance.
There are some benefits to the remote connections we had this past year. As YPOC continues to grow and find more and more of an identity, I see a future where local and state government leaders, social justice advocates, and other global entities can visit the club’s students without leaving their offices or homes. I see my students, connecting with other students from around the country working on a service project virtually.
As I look forward, the possibilities to change this world for the better are virtually limitless.
Angel Santiago is the 2020-21 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. He is a fifth-grade teacher at Loring Flemming Elementary School in Gloucester Township. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.