Shady Grove Elementary principal Kiersten Schnacke watched gift bags from Holy Communion pile up around the foyer Christmas tree Wednesday and quickly disappeared. By the time she reached her office door, tears were running down her face.
“I get emotional at all the things people do to help,” she said, steadying the stammer in her voice.
“If people only knew what this means to us.”
Thanks to the ingenuity of retired schoolteacher Carol Paterson, Holy Communion provided each of the 393 students a bag of school supplies – what she calls "a mid-year refresher kit" - with grade-appropriate items, all purchased from the teachers’ supply lists.
“Crayons run out. Paper runs out. Pencils run out,” said Paterson, who taught 34 years in Memphis public schools and knows paper and pens are a low priority for families struggling to buy Christmas gifts.
With about $300 Holy Communion raised from the sale of Shady Grove gift tags that Paterson made for the Outreach Gift Fair, she bought 250 pairs of scissors, 36 reams of notebook paper and enough pens, pencils and erasers to fill in the cracks for the rest of the year.
“Office Depot was very generous. They cut us some deals,” she said, “discounting many of their Office Depot brand supplies.”
Diane Williams donated boxes of crayons and helped stuff bags. Susan Russell and Don Paterson also stuffed bags.
The children will get their gift bags before they leave Friday for holiday break.
Shady Grove, in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in East Memphis, serves an entirely different population. Many of students are bused in from neighborhoods along Whitten and Macon roads, including four interstate motels.
“The district considers those children homeless,” Schnacke said. “Some actually live there. Some have parents who work there and are allowed to live there. Some others might have parents in and out - incarceration or whatever their circumstance is – and while it is more expensive to pay by the week rather than rent, a lot of them are there because they have to have that back-up.”
For Schnacke and her staff, the sadness, and especially at Christmas, is the extreme circumstances some of the students face.
“When you hear some of the stuff, and they are still here, coming to school,” said Kathy Martin, school counselor, shaking her head. “And they are 6- and 7-year-olds, dealing with these issues.”
“It’s all about the love. That’s why I get so emotional about the volunteers because the kids feel they are loved,” Schnacke said. “Someone is coming in for them and only them.”
About 20 Holy Communion members volunteer an hour week at Shady Grove in TeamRead, a program to help second-graders improve their reading skills by learning to recognize sight words.
“it’s magic, pure magic,” said Christy Yarbro, member and a former Shady Grove team leader. “I honestly think I may get more out of it than the kids do. The little boy I worked with last year profoundly impacted by worldview. He was super sweet and full of hope. Small children are just so true.”
In the state report card, released this week, Shady Grove scored 3 out of 5 for growth in literacy and a 1 (the lowest score) for math. A score of 3 means the children are making a year’s worth of growth in the subject. Anything less means they are losing ground.
Schnacke credits the volunteers for the gains in literacy. She is thrilled that four medical students from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine have signed up to help with math and science.
“I promise you, the volunteers make the difference. You can put the children on a computer all day, but that extra human, that person taking an interest in them, it’s the difference. That’s totally the difference.
“For so many kids, all they want is for you to take time in our fast-paced world to just listen. That’s how volunteers really help us the most. They are that other set of listening ears. Academics, yes, but listening really helps the social, emotional side.”
Holy Communion gave money to buy 18 school uniforms in the fall, plus socks and underwear. It also donated 140 “Rise and Shine, I’m on Time” t- shirts, which Shady Grove uses as an incentive for children with high-absentee rates.
Individually, Emily Woodside and Dr. Bill Falvey have provided funding for Opera Memphis visits to Shady Grove for four consecutive years, a big hit with the students, Schnacke said.
“But nobody ever wants to be recognized for anything. Please come and let us thank you."
Pictured, from left, are school counselor Kathy Martin, Carol and Don Paterson, principal Kiersten Schnacke and Emily Woodside.