In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti, killing more than 500 people and leaving the country with a humanitarian crisis.
A few weeks after the devastation, the United Nations estimated at least 1.4 million Haitians were in need of urgent assistance and clean water, food and medicine, per an article from The Atlantic.
When Penn Wynne Elementary School rising fourth-graders Hailey Miller, Gavriella Adelman, Sage Bowmen, Eva Grant, Jessie Liao, Ashley Meraz-Guevara, Avery Sill, Julia Menschik and Sophia Fendo heard about the hurricane one day from their librarian, they wanted to help.
They created a group and organized a school-wide fundraiser, Hats for Haiti, in which students could break the school rule for one Thursday and wear hats if they brought in a donation.
They ended up raising more than $3,000.
Their efforts were recognized by the National Liberty Museum and each were given a 2017 TD Bank Young Heroes Award, which acknowledges “young people who have taken action to make positive social change in their schools and communities,” per the museum’s website.
They were honored at an awards ceremony Aug. 10, and their story will be displayed on a plaque in the museum for a year.
For some of the students, raising the money, which went to UNICEF and the American Red Cross to also help rebuild a school, was an act of tzedakah.
“We were like, that must be really awful to the people in Haiti, so we were like how can we help?” recalled Gavriella Adelman, who goes to Main Line Reform Temple.
They asked the librarian, Brahin Tabb, to help form a group and enlisted the help of other teachers and Principal Shawn Bernatowicz to make decorations and make the day Hats for Haiti.
“I joined the group because I thought it must be really awful, kids my age and under, for their homes to be destroyed and have literally nothing left,” Gavriella said, “so we felt really bad because we knew if we were in Haiti and our homes got destroyed and everything we had was gone we would be traumatized.”
They created a presentation about Haiti and the hurricane and went to the kindergarten through fifth-grade classes to tell them about what happened.
“We thought it was really important for other people to know what other people are going through,” Gavriella said, “because if you just go through life thinking, ‘Oh life is perfect, it’s fine, everything’s fine,’ you’re not going to be very successful because you’ve got to acknowledge that not everything is perfect for people and everyone’s trying to make the world a better place, but we need to help other people.”
Raising the money, which she also did with the help of her family who enlisted donations outside of school, and winning the Young Heroes Award made her feel accomplished.
“It feels really good to do something, to do a mitzvah for someone else,” she said.
Hailey Miller, who goes to Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, helped get the project going.
Like Gavriella, when Hailey heard about the hurricane she wanted to do something about it.
She helped get all the girls in their class together for the group — and then partnered with the boys — and created the initiative to educate her classmates about Haiti and what happened there.
“We told our class about it and the boys in our class, we partnered with them, and we went to the all these different classrooms, kindergarten through fifth grade, and told them about Haiti and that on Thursday you’re supposed to wear a hat and bring a donation in,” she explained.
It made her feel “really good and really helpful” to have raised the money and she hopes her fellow students learned “to always help people if there’s something wrong in their place and to give money to people that are in need and need help.”
Raising money for Haiti helped spark a passion for activism, as she said while they might not repeat the same fundraiser, they might focus their attention on a different place next year.
For them, their age shows it doesn’t matter how old you are to make a difference.
Even at 9 years old, Gavriella said, “I can do something kind of tiny and make it really big for other people’s lives. … I know if I do something tiny, it can make someone else’s life just come together.”
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