Baltimore students raise funds for Hurricane Harvey relief, learn and teach lesson in empathy

August Baker was walking to school last month when she spotted an abandoned $10 bill sticking out of the grass.

Ordinarily, such a lucky find would warrant a trip to the store for new nail polish or some Tastykakes, she said. But not on that September day.

The 13-year-old tucked the money into her pocket and took it with her to City Springs Elementary/Middle School. She then donated it to a class fundraiser benefiting victims of Hurricane Harvey, the deadly storm that tore through Texas in August.

“I looked at that $10 and asked myself, ‘Are you going to help Houston or get something for yourself that you want right now?’ ” August said. “I decided Houston needs it more.”

Students at City Springs — a school in Southeast Baltimore that serves some of the city’s poorest families — raised $1,000 for the people in Harvey’s path of destruction. The story of their generosity has since gone viral, drawing television coverage, visits from city officials and praise from admirers across the country.

In the days since the students’ story took off, they’ve tripled the amount of money raised to benefit the American Red Cross.

“It’s oftentimes striking how we see those who have the least give the most,” said Wyatt Oroke, the humanities teacher who encouraged his young charges’ altruism. “I think it’s because they’ve seen that side of things, and have stronger empathy.”

Oroke started talking about Harvey to his eighth-grade class during the first week of school. He showed them before-and-after images of Houston, with highways and houses submerged in water.

“Students kept asking, ‘What can we do to help?’” Oroke said.

“I turned it to them and asked: ‘What do you want to do to help?’ ”

His students crafted a proposal. They made a brochure and presented it to students, parents and teachers, decorated school hallways with posters, and went class to class to ask for donations. Pre-kindergartners, eager to contribute, dug pennies out of their pockets. Older students saved up allowances and proudly donated money earned doing chores.

“Everyone wanted to give something,” Principal Rhonda Richetta said.

The students quickly blew past the initial goal of $500.

“They just really wanted to help,” Richetta said. “They felt like, ‘Yeah, we might not have a lot in our lives, but at least we have a roof over our heads, we have clothes to wear and we have a refrigerator keeping our food cold. The people in Houston don't have those things.’ ”

One of the students leading the effort said “empathy” is a word that’s become important to her.

“We knew if we were in the same position that Houston was in, we would want someone helping us,” said Chantelle Thomas, 13. “It helped us to better understand the importance of giving to others, when we’re not in the best position ourselves.”

Chantelle said her mother likes to say that if you give blessings, blessings will come back.

People from across the country have been sending messages, thanking the students for their work. Since the students were first featured on local television news, strangers have added more than $2,000. City Councilman Zeke Cohen and Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby have come to visit Oroke’s class.

“This is what the Baltimore I know and love looks like,” Cohen said.

Cohen is now seeking permission from the city’s Board of Estimates to solicit donations and start a fund to send the City Springs student organizers to Houston. He’s hoping to help raise enough money to cover travel and accommodations costs so the students can “connect with other young people who have been impacted by the hurricane.”

“The young people expressed interest in taking the next step in this journey,” Cohen said. “I want to support them in getting there.”

As a city teacher in 2008, Cohen helped lead a student trip to New Orleans to assist with rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina.

“For my students and me, it was an incredibly transformative experience being able to help hurricane victims rebuild their homes and rebuild their lives,” he said. “I know the City Springs students will have a similarly powerful experience in Texas.”

The students’ fans have weighed in on Twitter.

“Beautifully selfless,” one person tweeted. “Human spirit shining through,” said another.

“One of you will be president one day because you are already changing the world,” another proclaimed. “I believe in you.”

Lenore Koors, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said the students’ donation constitutes a “tremendous gift” that was much needed.

“We are also hopeful that this is a great learning experience about philanthropy and giving, especially coming from students who have limited resources,” she said.

Richetta said she loves the positive attention the students are receiving.

“More often than not, when city schools are in the news, it’s not good,” she said.

She wants to harness the students’ momentum. So at City Springs, the administration is working to launch a philanthropy club.

“We’re not just worried about ourselves,” said August Baker, the girl who found the $10 bill. “We care about others.”

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

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