Lending a Helping Hand
“When I see homeless people out there, with no food and no family to look out for them it makes me feel sad, so anytime I can give back, I want to,” Julie said. “Helping Hands lets me do that at school, so it’s pretty cool.”
She and her classmates have collected items for soldiers stationed overseas, spent time visiting with local senior citizens, started a local food pantry for neighborhood families in need and, yes, crafted hundreds of lunches for the homeless in Denton and Dallas Counties.
But Julie and her friends in Helping Hands aren’t part of a student group at one of Denton ISD’s high schools or a club run by college students, they’re part of one of the most popular student groups at Ginnings Elementary and the leaders that make civic-pride a regular part of campus life.
“It has really changed the way our school acts now. Not that we were bad before, but I think more people understand what it does to others in need when you help and how it makes you feel,” said Sawyer Becker, a fourth grader in Helping Hands.
Creating a positive influence in his students is something that Geoffrey Gauntt wanted to establish from Day One at Ginnings. Mr. Gauntt understood his part as a teacher and role model for students, but he also wanted to do something that would allow students to serve as role models for their peers.
A first-year inclusion teacher in Denton ISD, Mr. Gauntt inquired with school administrators about starting an after-school club that would focus on being a positive influence and community service. Modeled after a program he initiated at his previous school, Helping Hands has taken off quicker than he or anyone else on campus expected.
The club currently features 25 third, fourth and fifth graders doing community outreach throughout Denton and feel-good projects back home, at Ginnings. They meet for an hour after school, once per week, to discuss on-campus needs, different ways in which they can give back to their neighborhood or simply work on current projects.
Visitors to Mr. Gauntt’s classroom for Helping Hands meetings are apt to witness everything from an assembly line of students making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to groups of students painting benches they helped build. The same handy crew might even be sitting quietly and watching a video about the need for more clean water sources for students in Africa.
“It’s been amazing to see how invested these students have become in their school and community,” said Mr. Gauntt. “A lot of these kids don’t have a lot extra that they can give, but they still find ways that they can do it to help others.”
Helping Hands members have learned that giving back doesn’t always require them to donate money or goods to a cause or help someone in need. Paying someone a compliment can brighten their day, while offering your time to help a classmate or simply joining others in finishing a task is enough to help ease a burden on people in the community.
The willingness to get involved has caught on in a big way. Applications to join the club next year have grown to the point that there is a wait list of more than 30 students wanting to replacing the departing fifth graders.
Helping Hands’ Wall of Kindness engulfs the main hallway that leads into the Ginnings cafeteria and gymnasium. Each different-colored outline of a child-sized hand represents an act of kindness that any student at the school has completed and been recognized for by a staff member, another student or a member of the community.
“It makes me feel good to inspire others to do something kind for someone else,” said fourth grader Yoselin Luengas. ‘Everyone at school wants to be in Helping Hands. And being in the club is fun because we get cheery and happy to help other people.”
Seeing students get excited to help each other is something Gauntt and the other teachers that support Helping Hands are excited to see the most. The group has organized campus clean-ups and recycling projects, organized a spaghetti dinner to raise more than $1,500 to help pay for the school’s science camp and dispersed the “friendship benches” they built around common areas at the school so students will be reminded to give back when they’re sitting with their friends. “I joined Helping Hands because I wanted to put more smiles on people’s faces and share in the joy that I feel every day,” said Sawyer. “It’s fun to see us reaching out to more kids and them wanting to do the same.”
Julie, fifth grader, recalled a conversation the group had about Mother Teresa and the work she did around the world to help those less fortunate during an after-school work session. She learned the meaning of the word selfless that day and even though she’s only 11 years old, she doesn’t see a time in her life when she won’t give back to others.
When he’s told of Julie’s story, Mr. Gauntt flashed a smile from ear to ear and beamed with pride.
“Our goal is simple,” he said, recalling the Mother Teresa discussion. “When they leave here we want them to know that they too can change the world by doing something big or by sharing a random act of kindness.”