People first.

By Sarah Fox

In the fall of 2015, residents in Sharpstown—a small community in Southwest Houston, Texas—lined up for grab bags of nutritional food. Supplementing these food supplies wasn’t a neighbourhood food bank, though, it was a local high school. They called it the Apollo Market, an after school project run by student volunteers at Sharpstown High School.

At the time, Sharpstown was ranked the second most food-insecure community in the U.S. With the support of longtime partner Healthcorps and backing from the Houston Food Bank, the Apollo Market food program set out to combat that title, while offering students the opportunity to give back where they live. For many, the inclination was already there. “Since I was little, [my dad] taught me to do good,” says Grade 10 student Michelle. “I’ve always wanted to help.”

Unfortunately, that opportunity dissolved. Last June, the Houston Food Bank lost its funding and with it went the resources to run the Apollo Market.

Disappointed but not discouraged, AP Spanish teacher Carlos Quintero—known around school for being resourceful—searched elsewhere to find a way to support his students’ dedication to community work. Almost immediately, he found WE.

The WE Schools program—the go-to resource for educators looking to implement service learning in the classroom—was a perfect fit. It advocated the local volunteerism his students were already passionate about (bringing into the fold lessons in action planning) and fostered opportunities to give back on a global scale. Best of all, it was adaptable, in this case to Carlos’s unique vision—one driven by a will to revive the Apollo Market.

Not long after introducing his students to WE, the storm hit. In the devastation to follow, classroom lessons led by Carlos would be tested by real life circumstances.

In August of 2017, record breaking rainfall landed in Texas and Louisiana, the result of a Category 4 storm coined Hurricane Harvey. Schools in Houston waited for 27 trillion gallons of rain to subside before opening doors to students. When Sharpstown High School students finally returned, they needed to know: How could they help their community in the wake of a reported $125 billion in damages across the state?

Luckily, Carlos’ students had an idea.

It started with a Go Fund Me page and a survey, created to assess the unique needs of those affected. Next came social posting and canvassing the community to raise awareness around their cause. Before they knew it, support came flooding in; $20 here, a hundred there. Then came the payoff. Allstate—a WE Schools partner and the sponsor behind the program’s WE Volunteer Now campaign—stepped in and matched their total fundraising amount of $7,000. This was followed by news that Healthcorps—the community outreach organization that helped Sharpstown High School launch the Apollo Market—wanted to rekindle their partnership. One fundraising event later, $10,000 was added to the pot.

The students now had $24,000 to support their community and feedback from surveys to inform next steps. They knew that they wanted to re-open the Apollo Market—Carlos’s vision—but from surveying locals, they also learned about the need for everything from house repair to temporary homes for the displaced.

Need isn’t something new to Greater Sharpstown. “We have families that are in dire need, always,” Carlos affirms. This $24,000, though, was “specifically” for families affected by Harvey… and with specificity comes tailoring. Calling on classroom lessons from their new service learning program, students applied WE’s hand-up model over traditional hand-outs that provide temporary Band-Aid solutions.

Guided by Carlos, students started by triaging need, learning that little things do matter. With the help of businesses in the area, they put together bags with essentials like toilet paper, toothbrushes and towels on a $20-a-bag budget. Next, using the information gathered from surveys and conversations with locals, they mapped an interconnected web of recovery where various families’ need could be fulfilled by the gifts of others. Take the plumber, who is helping restore one family’s bathroom, while the father of that family—a handyman with experience in home renovations—will put new flooring into the plumber’s home.

As students get further into WE’s service learning curriculum, Carlos is seeking new ways for this group to give back. As he concludes, “that’s the whole thing [about] the WE organization; how do you take your group or your community project and expand it.”

For now, Sharpstown High remains focused on Hurricane Harvey recovery. This past February, Carlos and students hosted Apollo Aid Day, an outreach and learn event where students met 37 local families impacted by the storm. From here, plans include more fundraising, more Apollo events and, of course, work on getting the Apollo Market back up and running.

Knowing what his students are capable of—having overcoming funding loss and the aftermath of natural disaster—Carlos intends to follow their lead. “The minute we give them an opportunity to shine and to show their true colours, they’re willing to step up to the plate and do it,” gushes the educator. “I think that’s the message: Given the right framework, given the right guidance… our kids will shine.”

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