When 15 first-graders donned chef hats to ask what their parents and teachers wanted for breakfast one morning, they were doing more than learning to count the quarters, dimes, and nickels they received in return. They were showing how every effort to make life better for a hungry child — large or small — matters.
Months ago, I was forwarded an email from Donna DeVito, an English as a Second Language teacher in Westchester, Illinois. As a storyteller, I often get updates on interesting stories from our fundraising team about an individual or group of people working to help end hunger through World Food Program USA.
And let me tell you, it’s a diverse bunch. They include an eight-year-old in Indiana who put pen to paper to help feed Syrian refugees and a pair of Ethiopian immigrants who raised funds from their homes in Minnesota and Maryland to help women, children, and men endure a drought more than 7,000 miles away.
Donna’s tale painted its own colorful picture. Her first graders created the Splash Café — aptly named after their mascot, the dolphin — to sell breakfast items at their school one morning. She let us know they were donating the proceeds to help feed hungry children around the world.
As I continued reading the email, one thing became clear: This was no ordinary breakfast spot.
These kids were being challenged to think about their place in the world, and what they could offer to it.
First off, Donna’s students, ranging from ages six to seven, interviewed for all the positions involved in running the café. These included manager, host and hostess, as well as waiters and waitresses, chefs, and cashiers.
Second, they kept their prices low because they were learning to count money. A bagel, for example, came right in at a quarter.
And last but not least, they were excited to raise money because they discovered online that 25 cents could provide a nutritious meal to a hungry child for a day.
“I think children helping other children is a beautiful thing,” Donna wrote, at the end of the email. “My students have learned that you are never too young to make a difference in the world.”
That first part of what she wrote stuck with me — the significance of when children help other children. Especially at a time when so many adults around the world were inclined to close their doors to refugee children in need. I wondered what it was like for Donna to see that generosity unfold before her eyes, and how it all came together.
So I made plans to talk to her. In the process, I wondered whether she, much like her students, might be extraordinary too.
“It really affected me through my life”
I chatted with Donna weeks later over the phone. I had my list of questions ready to figure out how this intrepid group of youngsters pulled this off and what motivated them to do so in the first place.
As it turns out, Donna’s preparations started last Fall and involved more than three weeks of lessons.
They included a trip to the grocery store to learn what breakfast food was; how to discern what was healthy and what wasn’t; as well as a special visitor — a Greek uncle in the restaurant business of one of the students — to explain what it takes to run a food operation. (Not to mention buying the uniforms and the chef hats!) They also watched videos about food and were mesmerized that adults were flying planes and driving trucks to deliver food all around the world.
But there was one thing I really wanted to ask Donna: Whether she knew someone personally who had suffered from hunger. It’s a question I almost always ask donors given the power of personal experience and testimony to touch and color the lives of so many.
She said no, but she told me global hunger was a problem that could be solved. While her students might not know the ravages of intense hunger, they could still relate to the idea and understand there was need in the world. She then shared with me a memory from when she was a student and a young girl — a simple visual and reminder that small acts of charity matter.
“When I was little, I went to private school,” Donna said. “There were these milk carton containers, and on the side, it said, 10 cents can supply Vitamin D for a child. It really affected me through my life. You don’t have to be wealthy to make a difference.”
When Donna’s students learned they could make a difference by raising 25 cents to provide a nutritious meal to a hungry child for a day, she asked them, what if we raised $5 dollars? That would be a nutritious meal for a day for 20 kids!
The basic lesson resonated with her students, many of whom come from countries that have benefitted from WFP’s work, including Guatemala, Honduras, the Philippines, and Ukraine. There was an ease and excitement that reminded Donna of what sometimes children uniquely possess, as compared with their elders.
“When kids help other kids, there’s such innocence there,” Donna said. “Adults lose track of that.”
“It made me feel joyful”
So for 45 minutes on March 10th, Donna’s students sold their breakfast wares, including 25-cent bagels and orange juice as well as blueberry muffins and 50-cent fruit cups.
The kids were enthusiastic, much like their parents and teachers who made sure to stuff the tip jar also slated for donation. The muffins were the best seller and the fruit cups came a close second.
The experience also gave them the opportunity to practice listening as well as hone their writing and speaking skills in English. And yes, they eagerly counted the money — knowing exactly where it was headed.
When Donna asked her students to write about what the experience was like after it was over, they wrote things like:
“We felt proud of ourselves.”
“It’s really nice that we can help them.”
“It made me feel joyful.”
“We should give more money.”
The joy of giving, from one child to another, had led them to something bigger. Call it a new perspective on the loose change that too often goes unnoticed, tucked away within the pockets of our clothes and the couch cushions in our living rooms.
They weren’t just counting the bagels they were selling. They were counting the mouths they were feeding, and the change they were creating themselves.
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