Chaparral Middle School teacher Sherry Robertson has been showing others the importance of giving back throughout her 20-year career in education. At Castle Rock Elementary, her fifth graders worked at a local food pantry every Thanksgiving.
When she transferred to the middle school level in 2007, Robertson was excited to share her passion for community service with a whole new crop of students. The Design-Based Learning social studies teacher launched a HUMANitarian Club to provide means for students to learn and become aware of global needs and the closer-to-home-homeless crisis.
“There is a misconception that homeless people are lazy and can better their status in life if they just work a little harder,” Robertson said. “I wanted my students to learn first-hand the causes and effects of homelessness.”
After doing some research, Robertson learned of the East San Gabriel Valley Coalition for the Homeless, a rotating winter shelter that services nearly 1,800 people from October through March.
Local homeless people register and receive an ID card that they must present when they enter the facility each night for a warm home-cooked meal at 5:30 p.m. They sign up for a shower, browse through donated clothing items, get a haircut and shave, and often receive medical and dental care.
“It was an easy decision to take on the responsibility to feed 200 men, women and children,” Robertson said.
For a decade, she signed the club members up to work a night when the shelter was held at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Rowland Heights. The middle schoolers were responsible for purchasing and making a dinner, signing in clients, scheduling showers, serving dinner, cleaning up and purchasing and packing 200 lunches to be given out the next day.
Chaparral’s advocacy classes also donated lunch items every year, and students gathered in Robertson’s classroom to make peanut butter and jelly sandwich lunches.
Since the club ended, she has continued to share the volunteer experience with Chaparral students and staff members. Robertson said it’s difficult to find the accurate words to describe the annual event, which is why she prefers for people to join the homeless shelter night.
“You have to live it,” she said. “You have to hear the stories of the homeless. You have to see their pain and feel their resiliency.”
This year, she extended an invitation to members of the Walnut Valley USD leadership development seminar to join her in the feeding and caring of the clients. Staff members from Walnut High, Quail Summit, Westhoff, and Castle Rock Elementary, WVUSD office and Superintendent Robert Taylor pitched in for the evening of giving held on Feb. 28. Several students, friends, and family members also attended, including Robertson’s third grade son, Riley, her husband and parents.
“I’m so excited that my son is finally at the age where he can volunteer and begin to learn compassion and humility,” Robertson said. “The night is truly life changing.”
Former parent Elaine Yada has been offering her cooking services for the past 12 years, a tradition that began when her daughter Taylor was a student in Robertson’s class.
“Elaine creates one of the best chili recipes you have ever tasted. I couldn’t do any of this without her,” Robertson said.
Volunteers take on a variety of duties throughout the evening, including cooking, serving dinner and helping clean the dining hall and kitchen.
“It is so beautiful when you see people loving and caring for people that just need a little kindness,” Robertson said.
Westhoff Elementary kindergarten teacher Roxanne Dennen and her sister Molly volunteered to provide haircuts. Fellow Chaparral teacher Ken Weeks has managed the shower station and passed out toiletries and towels for the past four years. He occasionally leads the mealtime prayer if the priest is unable to attend, earning the moniker “Father Ken.”
“Each year, this deeply humbling experience reminds me to be more appreciative of what I have and to be more compassionate to those in need,” Weeks said.
Walnut High computer science teacher Nick Blackford served chili to volunteer waiters and moved the large, hot trays from the oven to the cooking station.
“There shouldn’t be people in such a developed nation that worry about where their next meal comes from,” Blackford said. “I believe if everyone with means stepped up, we can end hunger.”
Quail Summit Elementary third grade teacher Jennifer Fetchik and her daughter, Haley, sorted clothing items by size and type of item, including blouses, T-shirts, shorts and pants.
Several attendees requested specific items of clothing, including a woman who wanted a nice blouse to wear to church and another who asked for gray leggings, Fetchik said. So, the volunteers went on a hunt through the bags to see if they could find them.
“And luckily, we did,” Fetchik said. “The smiles on their faces were priceless.”
Fetchik also was moved by how eager the attendees were to assist at the shelter.
“Regardless of your situation, everyone wants to feel valued and helpful,” she said.
“It was touching to peek from behind the curtain into what we see every day on the streets, but to experience it from the other side,” said Raelene Waddell, a second grade teacher at Westhoff Elementary.
“Watching Sherry (Robertson) interact with the entire team was amazing. She was so organized, compassionate, energetic, and committed to the task of caring for these people who may be homeless, but are human beings just like you and me.”
Robertson shared that the most essential part of the experience is when students realize that these people of all ages and races are united by one characteristic – being human, with human needs that match our own.
“They are all people with stories of hardships and victories. People who weren’t so different from you and me,” student Joshua Chou wrote of the experience.
“For me, if one child can learn this lesson from a volunteer experience, it is all worth the work,” Robertson said.