When Patterson High School teacher Melissa Harris recently explained to her immigrant students that there had been an outpouring of support from the community to the school, there was dead silence in her classroom.
At a time when the political rhetoric has made some immigrants feel increasingly isolated, it took the students a moment to absorb the news that people do care about them.
"The kids were blown away," she said. "They don't feel that love. We all got sort of teary."
Since the publication of Unsettled Journeys, a series about the struggles of teenage immigrants at Patterson trying to make a new life in America, readers have sent in $7,200 in checks and pledges. The donations were generally between $25 and $100, but one was as high as $1,200. One member of the community said she was on a very limited budget, but she wanted to give what she could. She enclosed $15.
Patterson's student body is one-third immigrant, one of the highest percentages in the state. The school is now confronting its next wave of newcomers, many of them boys from Honduras and El Salvador. Many arrive with little education and carrying trauma from the violence they feld in their countries.
The checks are still arriving, tucked inside cards or attached to sticky notes, most often written with a message of support for the teaching staff.
"This Thanksgiving, I am thankful to you and your colleagues," wrote one retired teacher who gave money.
"I admire your devotion, your expertise, your perseverance. I hope this gift will help a little." Another person wrote: "God Bless what you're doing to help out the immigrants to our great country."
Margot Harris, chair of the English as a second language department at Patterson, has limited resources. "This money is really going to help," she said. Harris plans to purchase curriculum, new books written at an elementary reading level that are interesting to teenagers, and an online literacy program to help students. If she has enough left over she would like to take the students on a field trip to Washington, D.C. to see the Capital, the Lincoln Memorial and other sites.
Some people also have offered to volunteer at the school, and a number of others are helping individual students who were featured in the series. One retired social worker has pledged to help Exel Estrada, a 17-year-old from Guatemala, by providing a small monthly stipend.
An American couple who worked overseas in the Central African Republic have reached out to an immigrant from that country, Monique Ngomba, who has struggled with culture shock. Few people in the area speak her native language, Sango, but this couple do speak the language and plan to help Monique's family become more settled. In addition, a generous donation of clothing, linens and money to buy food at the African Market arrived just before the holiday for Monique's family.
Harris has had students write notes of thanks. Some students who are just learning to hold their pens correctly decided to draw pictures on construction paper and then applied stickers, while others are fluent enough to write in English. One student, using his dictionary, wrote: "Benefactor, I am elated by your generosity."
"It is easy to feel that everyone is against what I have devoted my life to," said teacher Melissa Harris. The contributions of money, notes of encouragement, and promises to volunteer "make me feel a lot hope."
Link to the series: http://baltsun.com/unsettledjourneys