Choose Kindness by Nancy Mugele

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“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.”

These poignant words written by R. J. Palacio in Wonder resonate deeply with me for three reasons. First, they echo the central tenets of a Kent School education – Integrity, Respect, Responsibility and Friendship. Second, they mirror the Six Pillars of Character Counts – Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring; and Citizenship. And lastly, they have always been words that I live by – especially kindness.

When our children were growing up, my husband and I told them over and over again that nice people go further in life, and to always be kind because you never know what a person might be dealing with at any given time. I still remember, with pride and fondness, that our children always seemed to make friends each academic year with new members of their class which meant Jim and I also made new friends. Kindness means being a true friend and also doing for others with no expectation of anything in return.

I promised my school community that I would write if I learned of a school with a specific need in light of the devastating hurricanes experienced in September in Houston, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. I had been waiting to hear from my friend Liz Morrison, the Head of School of Antilles School serving 500 students in PreK – Grade 12 on St. Thomas and St. John since I first contacted her on September 5 as Hurricane Irma was approaching. I finally heard from her last week.

In her own words: “St. Thomas and the Territory experienced two category five hurricanes in two weeks last month. Consequently, 90 percent of the island of St. Thomas is still without power and running water, and many have lost their homes and their livelihood. Antilles School, one of the few independent schools in the territory and the only one on St. Thomas, needed to reopen as quickly as possible for the health of the children and their families and to aid in the relief efforts.

“This came at an extreme financial cost to the institution and yet gave the children of the island normalcy and much needed educational continuity. In the wake of the hurricanes many of our families are unable to meet their financial obligations to the School, and yet we have allowed these students to continue their education. We continue to admit local students from public schools as their schools have yet to reopen. I would love to share the stories of three of these families.

“One of our second graders lost her father while he was protecting his family during Hurricane Irma. Adding to their difficulties, her mother’s employer downsized six months ago and she is unemployed. Antilles has been a safe haven for the family – a place where the child has friends and adults to help her process this tragedy. Keeping this student at school, keeping the family clothed and fed, are one of our top priorities.

“A new student in sixth grade whose school is still closed as a result of the hurricanes shared at the end of his first day that he believes “dreams do come true” because he was able to come to Antilles. Three weeks after this young man’s arrival at Antilles he is smiling, engaged in his studies, and is excited to come to school every day. His mother says, “It’s the first time he has ever said he has had a good day at school.” Giving this student, whose family could not afford the tuition, an Antilles education is a life-changing experience for him.

“One of our 11th graders who has been at Antilles since Kindergarten, was forced to move into a shelter after his home was destroyed in the hurricanes. Meeting his academic obligations while he is living in a gymnasium with more than 100 people, and eating FEMA rations is an incredible challenge. Yet he is, and he continues to do so with grace and poise.”

Liz’s story is so compelling, heartbreaking and, yet, also hopeful. She has lost 1/3 of her student population because their families have lost homes and jobs (75% of Antilles families work in the tourism industry). Liz has had to lay off teachers and cannot pay the school’s bills. The school really needs funding to remain open and continue to be a place of comfort, security and yes, joy, for its students.

Tonight Kent School is holding its annual Empty Bowls event. Empty Bowls is an international project to fight hunger, personalized by artists and art organizations on a community level. While admission is free and open to the public, guests may enjoy a variety of homemade soups and breads with the purchase of a student-made ceramic bowl. Each bowl is $10.

In the spirit of Auggie Pullman, the main character in Wonder, who asked us all to choose kindness, the opening of the movie Wonder this month, and Thanksgiving, Kent School has decided to use tonight’s Empty Bowls event to raise funds for both the Kent County Food Pantry and Antilles School. We BELIEVE deeply in supporting our local community as well as being able to extend our reach to a far-away friend in need. If you are inclined to help personally I can put you directly in touch with Liz or you can donate online. Please join us at Kent School this evening at 6 p.m. at our Empty Bowls event where you can enjoy a bowl of soup before heading to First Friday.

Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown and a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s.

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