Students lead community outreach project

From left to right: Tala Mae Staples, Myra Pratt, Eythan River and Ethany Rivera show the bags of hygiene items to which they added their own touch of creativity.

Cottage Grove Christian School found grant writers for its latest project in an unlikely place — right in its own classrooms.

Students from the school came up with a community outreach project tailored for a grant awarded by the Oregon Conference of Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Office of Education in Portland. The grant application, written by fourth- to eighth-graders, won the school $1,500 for an idea to distribute hygiene items to those in need in the Cottage Grove community.

“I gave them some thoughts, but let them run with it,” said Heather Houston, the school’s principal and one of its teachers. “They came up with the idea.”

The fledgling grant writers settled on hygiene as their theme after discussing local needs.

“There are a lot of people in the world that are poor or homeless and it just popped into our brains,” said fifth-grader Tara Mae Staples, who was a lead writer for the grant. “So we just thought maybe we can do something to help the world.”

Houston was predictably a strong cheerleader for the kids’ idea.

“They wanted people who might not have the opportunity to feel fresh all the time to just feel good about themselves,” she said. “And I think that’s just the easiest way they can kind of wrap their arms and metaphorically hug somebody.”

Houston attested that the children wrote the grant application themselves and “all I did really was a little bit of spell checking and then submitting the grant for them to Portland.”

Staples said the process was a mix of excitement and a little nervousness.

“Writing it down … you could feel the pressure in your handwriting,” she said. “It’s exciting, but the grant is on your shoulders.”

At the end of a two-month process, the students learned they’d successfully been awarded the $1,500.

“Actually, I felt surprised,” said Staples. “I was full of energy and I was like, ‘I can’t wait.’”

With the funds ready to go, the rest of the student body, from preschool to eighth grade, chipped in to finish the project.

Each student was given about $40 to go stores with parents and collect lists of items. Shampoo, toothbrushes, toys, conditioner, lotion, deodorant, nail clippers and all manner of hygiene-related items began piling up at the school.

“My office was overflowing with items,” laughed Houston. 

Hygiene items were separated into categories for men, women, boys and girls.

Canvas tote bags were also purchased to hold the items. Students wrote words of encouragement, scripture and drew pictures on each bag with fabric markers.

In all, 60 bags were stocked up, 15 for each category of recipient. 

Now that the items have been sorted and are ready to go, the school is waiting to hear back from local groups who would like to help distribute them.

“We had some community places in mind that we’d like them to go to, but they haven’t gotten back to me yet,” said Houston.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church, which operates the school, also provides community outreach with food, serving around 200 people every month in food giveaways. If the school doesn’t hear back from local groups, Houston plans on getting the items out to the community through that service later this month.

“So somewhere in the community of people that need some extra stuff, hopefully they just get encouragement and know ‘we care about you,’” she said. “You might not know who or where it came from, but having a hygiene product and then a bag with a reminder some little cute kid, even preschoolers, drew on these bags so that they have this memory — they can go to the store and hopefully it will last a long time and they just remember that they’re loved. I think there’s a big need for people knowing that they’re loved in this community.”

Besides helping out those in need, the project has also been beneficial for the students.

“I’m hoping it’s going to be very empowering for the kids, knowing that little, young kids and a little, tiny school can make a difference,” Houston said. “They all felt like they were really a part of it. And so, we turned it into project-based learning.”

The project actually came in under budget and Houston hopes students learned a valuable lesson in money management.”

As far as student responsibilities, the project included budgeting, handling receipts and bringing change back to Houston, a process she noted is an ideal way to teach a subject like math and its real-world applications.

“Instead of math on its own, you get to do a fun project with math,” she noted. “If you have a fun experience, you’re going to be like, ‘Oh, I want to do more math.’”

For her part, Staples said she found plenty to of lessons to glean from the project.

“I’ve learned that sometimes there’s not always a time to be independent and you should be the change you want to see the world,” she said, noting that the whole process has given her insight into her own leadership abilities. “I felt different. Different, but an important leader.”

Houston added, “One other benefit, too, is it takes the students off of just thinking about them and it keeps them thinking about what’s going on around them — thinking about others and putting others first and the community.”

Knowing the bags would be in the hands of strangers, Staples also said it instilled some pride in her work, too.

“You feel really pleased with yourself when you do good quality (work),” she said.

Houston’s own pride in her students was palpable.

“We just want our community to know that there are lots of people doing great things,” she said. “I think there’s too much focus on the negative things in the world. And there are lots of people in our community doing awesome, really great community outreach. We just want a little bit of a spotlight on the kids that are working really hard and just want to reach out and be a blessing to our community.”

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