Students learn a lesson in compassion

Canned food drive sees a jump in response in light of Sept. 11

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— When fifth-grader Haley O'Brien sat on Santa Claus' lap at Howelsen Hill's holiday party, she asked for world peace.

Chances are it was quite a different request than the one she had last year, but since Sept. 11 this has become quite a different world for those of O'Brien's age.

"The attacks opened our eyes on how we really need to care more," the Strawberry Park Elementary student said. "I want to be kind to the people I see that don't have as much as me."

For many students, the act of giving after the World Trade Center attacks has continued on into the holiday season. For Strawberry Park that means annual donation drives, such as collecting canned food for LIFT-UP, have had record-breaking responses.

While the school had set a goal of one canned good per child, which would mean 425 cans, school counselor Judy Schwall said more than 900 cans were brought into to the school this year in a one-week period.

"(The giving) has always been there," Schwall said. "But there's an extra burst of energy from everybody now."

Collecting canned food for those in Steamboat has been one of the many acts of giving the school has done since the terrorist attacks.

Strawberry Park responded to President Bush's call for every child to donate a dollar, collected stuffed animals and raised almost $6,000.

O'Brien brought in more than 30 cans and her class, which is taught by Donna Roberts, brought in 113 food items more than any other class in the school.

Since Sept. 11, helping others, whether it is in Afghanistan, New York or Steamboat, is something that has been on O'Brien's mind.

"I really didn't help out as much as I do now. I really didn't notice a lot of people needed help," O'Brien said.

For the past few years, Strawberry Park and other schools in the Steamboat Springs School District have designated December as "Compassion Month."

During the holidays, teachers have the chance to discuss virtues and find ways for students to show compassion.

Webster defines compassion as the sorrow for the sufferings or troubles of another or others, accompanied by an urge to help. O'Brien defines it as "meaning to be helpful and caring and useful to other people."

Either definition would describe the way Strawberry Park Elementary students have reacted to terrorist attacks and the local giving that has sprung from those events.

"I thought about one of my family members or relatives and how I would feel if I lost one of them. I put myself in their shoes and just what I would do. Just thinking about it, I want to give," said Nathan Zable, who is also a fifth-grader in Roberts' class.

Even though the canned food the class collected went to people 2,000 miles away, giving to others still made the students feel better.

"It felt really good," Zable said. "I kind of just felt like giving to other families."

December might be compassion month for the students of Strawberry Park, but practicing compassion is something that students all over Routt County have been doing nonstop since Sept. 11.

At Steamboat Springs High School, the leadership club is also collecting food and ringing bells for the Salvation Army. It is also one of a handful of organizations that have offered to buy Christmas presents for Routt County's United Way Christmas Wishes program.

Lowell Whiteman Primary School and Christian Heritage School are also buying Christmas presents for local families. At the primary school, eager students took tags, which had the names of different gift items on them, off the Christmas tree the first day the tags were hung.

Other schools are doing more nontraditional giving. The workshop class at Soroco High School offered to build toys for the United Way, but Millie Beall of the United Way asked them to make an easel instead. The class said they would make a handful of easels.

Despite the increased support schools such as Strawberry Park have shown, community charities such as Christmas Wishes and LIFT-UP are still in need of support. Beall said that she has 26 families that still need to be adopted and the food bank of LIFT-UP is quickly dwindling.

After the outpouring of money for the Sept. 11 funds, local charities expressed concern that their annual contributions would suffer. But fifth-grade student Zach Dunlap said compassion is a lesson that he plans to remember and share with the community.

"I think I'll keep the compassion," he said. "If I see one of those donation cans at Safeway, I'll know if everybody puts a little bit of change in it that families are going to get a lot of money to help them."

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