When Crone Middle School in Naperville gets behind a cause -- even an international one -- good things can happen.
That's the lesson Indian Prairie Unit District 204 substitute teacher Diana Thompson says she learns every time she works at Crone. Stepping into the school where she's subbed for 10 years, she's reminded of just how far the students and teachers will go to open their hearts and bring joy to others.
The joy she's talking about came most recently in the form of socks, shoes, hats, school supplies and children's stories in Spanish -- all things she recently delivered to poor residents of a town in Guatemala, and all things she got from the generosity of those at Crone.
"You opened up your hearts to help the people that I see when I go on my trip," Thompson told a class of eighth-graders who wrote and donated books in Spanish.
The trip in January was Thompson's fourth trip to Guatemala through her church, Good Shepherd Lutheran in Naperville, and the Indiana-based nonprofit organization Hearts in Motion. It gave her a chance to dole out items students at Crone collected and made once they learned about her efforts to help people in a place where clean water is hard to come by, living conditions can be dirty and even temporary comforts can help.
"It just warms my heart to have the kids be exposed to what else is out there," Thompson said. "I'm blessed the teachers allow me to share my story so we can open up their world view and let them participate."
Crone has helped Thompson's missionary efforts in Guatemala since summer 2014, when she asked the gym teacher whether there were any unclaimed shoes in the lost and found. She noticed on her first trip that many kids would run around with nothing on their feet, so she washed, dried and disinfected the dozen pairs Crone kids hadn't claimed, and brought them back the next summer.
Soon, her shoe collection grew with all of the District 204 schools where she subs -- Crone and Scullen middle schools and Peterson Elementary -- getting involved, but Crone leading the way. The collection drew more than 3,000 sets of shoes, about 2,100 of which were suitable for the tropical conditions in Guatemala. Hearts in Motion has distributed many of the pairs, and Thompson and her family have helped on their third and fourth trips, in June 2016 and last month.
After her June trip, Thompson told her story to some classes at Crone who wanted to help, but she knew she couldn't handle any more shoes. Instead, students in sixth-grade social studies classes taught by Richelle DiCola and her co-workers collected socks, with student Yina Wang setting up a spreadsheet on her school-issued Chromebook to track how many pairs were turned in. The collection coordinated with a project in which they studied the historical significance of shoes in Egyptian culture, then designed and built a prototype Egyptian sandal, using skills in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math.
"I thought it was pretty cool," Yina said about the donation drive. "It feels good to help other people, even if you don't know them."
Yina and her peers aimed to gather two pairs of socks from every student, which would have been about 200 pairs. They ended up with 343.
Thompson recently returned to DiCola's classroom to tell of the socks stuffed into huge duffel bags and given to Guatemalan kids and their parents, many of whom live near a dump where dust flies and shards of glass or plastic scatter the ground.
"It helps protect their feet from the conditions that they live in," Thompson told the students about their donation.
Volunteers handed out the socks along with shoes, dish towels, hats, school supplies, beans and rice, sandwiches and Mardi Gras-style beads -- just for fun -- to Guatemalans at a building in the dump. Thompson says it feels like the handouts help, yet don't do enough, even as the group also works to distribute water filters, improve water collection and build community facilities for washing and laundry.
"We're trying to find something that could be more long-lasting for them," Thompson said. "A lot of the stuff we're just handing to them."
That's why she so loved Crone teacher Amy Miler's idea. Miler assigned her eighth-grade students to write children's books in Spanish for Thompson to deliver to the Guatemalan kids. Having the books gave volunteers like Thompson a reason to sit down one-on-one with a child, fostering interaction instead of an assembly line progression through a row of free stuff.
"I wanted to do something to connect with the Spanish-speaking world," Miler said. "They wrote about topics we've covered in class so they didn't have to use Google Translate."
Thompson plans to continue her Guatemalan service trips and her connections with Crone. She hopes the Spanish books Miler's students produce next year can contain English translations as well, creating another layer of learning and giving for the Naperville kids.
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