Poverty Education Week in Action

From March 4-8, St. John’s held its 11th annual Poverty Education Week (PEW).

One way the SJC community expresses its solidarity with the poor is through this Lenten program, which focuses on education, service and prayer. Throughout the week, there were opportunities for students, families, faculty and staff to engage in assemblies, department presentations, poverty-related lessons in each academic discipline, guest speaker presentations, artwork throughout the campus and mission-related fundraisers.
Monday featured the opening assembly with a call to action. The program included four speakers who shared their experiences with and on behalf of the poor. Senior Laila Michel started things off by describing her service trip to Haiti last summer. Through the Helping Hands organization, she traveled with her physician mother and a small group of medical professionals to Carrefour and Port-au-Prince to treat hospital patients. Michel decorated casts for the children and helped them feel comfortable while they were examined and treated by the doctors. Bro. Paul Avvento spoke about his tenure at the San Miguel School in San Francisco and the spirituality of service. He explained, “In order for my life to be changed, I needed to lead with love and charity. We must allow ourselves to be changed by others – it’s not just about serving the necessary hours.”
Religion teacher Ryan Longton outlined the details for the annual mission drive for St. John’s twinned school, the Child Discovery Centre in Kenya. This year, SJC has partnered with Central Catholic in Pittsburgh to raise funds for a new water filtration system, since the community’s current water supply is tainted with toxins. The filtration system will also allow Child Discovery Centre to sell – at a fair price – surplus water to the local community. Monetary donations for the drive were collected in religion classes throughout the week, and SJC was able to raise more than $21,000 to fulfill its share of the cost.
“Once the need was shared for a water purification system at our twinned school, our students rallied to raise more money than ever before for the twinning program. Our students, largely because of SJC’s poverty curriculum, understand the vital importance of having a source of clean water, as well as a means of economic self-sufficient support, through the sale of excess water from the system. The mission drive helps to make real the Lasallian concept of association, joining in solidarity with those around the world,” said Director of Mission Integration Tom Sipowicz.
Dr. Mark Bergel, a nationally-acclaimed speaker in the fields of poverty, health and social connection and the founder of A Wider Circle, a nonprofit organization with the mission to end poverty by inspiring, fostering and measuring individual and community level change, was the guest speaker at the assembly. His presentation focused on the importance of recognizing the humanity in the impoverished and how poverty is an embedded element in our lives. Many years ago, while working in a food pantry and visiting people’s apartments to drop off groceries, he noticed that they lacked possessions. Experiencing so many people in need had a profound effect on Dr. Bergel and motivated him to form his nonprofit. He told the SJC community, “Poverty is about action. Show how much you love people by not allowing them to live in poverty.” He concluded with a challenge, “How will your life make sure that someone’s life is better?”
After school on Monday, four SJC Lasallian Youth members tutored middle school students at San Miguel School. The goal of this work between San Miguel and St. John’s is to build bridges and live in community and by association as companions in human and Christian education. The first day of PEW was also observed by student and faculty summer service immersion trip participants wearing their themed shirts. They inspired the school community by informally sharing their experiences. Click here to read more about SJC’s summer service immersion trip experiences and opportunities.
On Tuesday, Dr. DeBorah White and Kelvin Lassiter from the National Coalition for the Homeless spoke to junior religion classes about homelessness and advocacy in De La Salle Chapel. White and Lassiter discussed the causes of homelessness, shared their personal stories of falling into and rising out of homelessness and offered suggestions for how to help those experiencing homelessness. White shared that after she lost her job, she could not find full-time work and found herself in the deplorable conditions of a woman’s shelter, an experience that led her to become an advocate for the homeless. She emphasized to the students, “Homelessness can happen to anyone.”
This was Lassiter’s third visit to St. John’s for the Poverty Education Week program. Due to family problems and the loss of his mother as a young man, he found himself on the streets, struggling with addiction. But through the help of an outreach center, he found shelter in a boarding house and a full-time job and eventually purchased his own home. He is just two credits shy of earning his degree in addiction counseling. Both presenters encouraged the students to help the homeless by voting and speaking to their legislators about this issue and by reaching out to those who have been made to feel they are not part of society. “Relationships are key when you are homeless; relationships are key when you’re not homeless. We are all more alike than different,” said Lassiter.   
Tuesday evening, the parent clubs of St. John’s held a Fat Tuesday Pancake Dinner in Cassidy Commons as a fun way for the community to join together and raise money for the mission drive. Following the dinner, Bro. Paul Avvento hosted Lent, Faith and Family, an evening of community, prayer, reflection and faith sharing for parents.
On Wednesday, students and faculty attended Mass, receiving ashes to mark the beginning of the Lent, and on Thursday, faculty and students participated in an all-day technology fast – abstaining from the use of technological devices such as iPads, smart phones, computers and audio/visual equipment. In addition, St. John’s Mothers’ Club sponsored a Meal of Solidarity in which the students and faculty demonstrated solidarity with the poor by sitting on the floor of Frana Auditorium and eating a small bowl of rice and beans for lunch.
On Friday, senior religion classes listened to presentations from three alumni who have continued lives of service beyond St. John’s. Mary McCarthy ’12 spoke about her service with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, Jillian Griffith ’10 shared her experience as an in-store nutritionist with Giant food stores and David Street ’04 emphasized service and the importance of giving back to the community through his work with Bread for the World and P.E.N (Promote, Enrich and Nurture) DMV, the  faith-based nonprofit he founded specializing in mentoring and STEM instruction for middle and high school youth living in Washington, DC. Click here to read more about their work.
St. John’s also offered several weeklong initiatives supporting Poverty Education Week. In addition to each day’s programming, all academic disciplines incorporated topic-related lessons. Further, many of the school’s departments provided supplementary educational initiatives for the school community. Student-artists created exhibits and murals on the plight of the poor that were displayed around campus. Click here to read more. They also made 144 bowls for the So Others Might Eat (S.O.M.E.) Empty Bowl Project, raising $3,600 to help feed the homeless in DC. Click here to read more. The Counseling Department shared themed prayers and statistics each morning during homeroom announcements, and the Fitzpatrick Library featured brief excerpts from works of fiction and nonfiction that focused on poverty. Students and faculty had the opportunity to read and reflect on these one- to five-minute pieces throughout the week.
This year’s Poverty Education Week activities continued into the following week, with students preparing 1,000 sandwiches and packing 500 lunches on March 13 for Catholic Charities. After school, 25 students and 10 faculty members joined Catholic Charities’ “Sandwich Brigade” program and distributed the lunches to those experiencing homelessness on the streets of DC. Two Catholic Charities shelters also received some of the packaged food. “We all are aware of the problem of homelessness. But when you actually come face to face with it, it becomes real and you grasp that all the statistics we read about aren’t just numbers but human beings, too. Being able to do this service showed me a new level of awareness and helped me realize that this epidemic is something that can be fought,” said Zubby Oboh ’19
SJC Principal Chris Themistos was inspired by the team effort of the entire community throughout the week. “As always, Poverty Education Week was impactful for our students. I believe all our students value each other’s dignity and understand true justice for all humanity. This concept allows the door to be opened to serving those in need and working to break the cycle of poverty on a local and global level. This week is a consistent reminder of our mission to continue to do God’s work.”