I moved to Cleveland from Washington D.C. nearly five months ago.
As I reflected on my experience so far over the phone with my mom, she asked me: have you done anything to make Cleveland a better place to live?
No, I hadn’t.
I’d been glued to my computer, typing up practice reports, feature stories. I’d been out on West 25th, trying to make new friends.
But I hadn’t made time to see the real Cleveland. I hadn’t made time to #Give10 hours to the community.
All of that changed last Thursday. My entire outlook would be forever altered on the city I now call home.
A torrential Ohio summer downpour had suddenly stopped in its tracks. The steamy August pavement on Perkins Avenue was glistening. The street is nestled five minutes outside the downtown hub of Cleveland. Older brick buildings and barbwire fencing line the avenue. It’s not exactly a glamorous part of town.
Cars bristled in out of the parking lot of the Kids In Need Resource Center. When you walk inside of the center, it looks like Office Depot’s hip younger cousin. The converted warehouse is stocked full of every school supply imaginable – all donated. Backpacks, classroom sets of novels and cell phone cases serve as the luxury items.
My duty was simple: help teachers carry loads of supplies to their cars.
Obviously, the Kids In Need Resource Center is for underprivileged kids. But the children never step foot in the center. To qualify to shop at the Kids In Need Resource Center, a teacher must teach at a school where 65 percent of the students are eligible for reduced lunch. The center sees around 40 teachers per day every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Poverty’s hand is a heavy one in Cleveland’s school districts. Last year the center saw more than 2,000 different teachers enter its doors.
Once inside the center to shop, teachers are given a large black shopping cart and are allowed to fill it to the brim with whatever they deem necessary. This is a teacher’s paradise. I noticed the constant grins on all the teachers. They can’t wait to shower some of their students with much needed supplies.
Jennifer Mahnic rented a black Chevy Suburban just to haul all of the supplies she knew she’d be able to reap from Kids in Need Resource Center. She’s been a regular at the center since they opened
Mahnic, a tall, animated, blonde, is a sixth grade teacher in the Maple Heights school district. For 12 straight years, educating kids has been her life.
Even on the first day of school this year, many of Mahnic’s students lingered around the hallways after the final bell had sounded. School provided stability for the kids. Once they leave, real life sets in for the young teenagers. Will there be a hot meal on the table? Are we sleeping in a car again tonight?
“Forty-percent of our students were in tutoring last year,” said Mahnic. “Even the smart kids. They go home and they have nothing.”
A few years back, Mahnic had a girl named Jessica in her class. A clever student with a bright personality, Jessica wasn’t able to make friends easily. It was her wardrobe. Jessica’s classmates refused to socialize with her because she wore the same thing to school every day. Her family couldn’t afford to give her a variety of clothes to wear.
Like so many teachers in the Cleveland area do, Mahnic took matters into her own hands. She arranged for Jessica to have a makeover: a new hairstyle, new makeup, new clothing.
It’s common for people to acknowledge teachers care about the livelihood of their students. You teach because you love it. But what many don’t understand is that so many teachers like Mahnic go into their own pocket to make students feel special.
Mahnic still checks in with Jessica. She still checks in with another boy who she bought Jordan shoes. She always will.
Gary Hicks pulled up to the Kids In Need Resource Center, in a beat up Red Ford Taurus. Papers and binders littered the backseat of the car.
“You like my hoopty?” Hicks said, half-jokingly.
In his early 30s, with a goatee and faded jeans, Hicks is not your stereotypical teacher with glasses and pencils tucked into his shirt pocket.
Maybe Hicks doesn’t look the part because he just started teaching two years ago. After 10 years of working as a banker, he upped and quit the industry, sacrificing nearly half of his salary in the process.
“I wasn’t selling a product that was helping the world,” said Hicks. “I wanted to change people’s lives. There’s info I feel like I wasn’t taught in a classroom setting that I want to impart on these kids.”
As a black male, Hicks decided the best way for him to help society would be in the classrooms of Cleveland. After taking a year to earn his degree, Hicks does that now as an intervention specialist at Euclid High School, educating students with emotional behavior issues and autism.
Those who work alongside Hicks say students that aren’t even his own seek him out for how to handle peer pressure, or what to expect in college. It’s not a rare sight to see Mr. Hicks out at breakfast on a weekend with a few of his students. A former college ball player, Hicks even accepted the head coaching position with the boys varsity basketball team.
He has less time for himself, and less money, but Hicks wouldn’t trade his life for anyone’s in the world.
“I help kids become better people every day: what more could I ask for,” said Hicks.
The rain picked back up on Perkins Avenue outside the Kids in Need Resource Center. The need for me to run supplies to and from cars had increased. The grin I talked about earlier had spread. I was sporting it like it was Christmas.
Mahnic and Hicks are just two angels blessing the Cleveland school system. I talked to 13 other teachers in my three hours of volunteering, all who floored me with their stories.
Tanya Allen taught special education for 35 years in Cleveland. A student named Carol sought out Allen for extra reading help. But Carol was embarrassed the other students might find out. So every day for nearly a year during lunch, Allen and Carol practiced vocabulary and comprehension skills. Carol ended up passing her Ohio Assessment Exam. When Allen found out, she had a note from Carol on her desk, reading, “Thank you, Ms. Allen, for torturing me.” Carol had meant to say tutor.
Dawn Bastian had an eighth grader named Frank whose backpack was suited for a kindergarten. She bought him a new backpack.
Ann Telepak had a third grader whose dad was diagnosed with cancer. She made sure to keep the boy distracted enough not to think about his ill father.
A physics teacher named Jared at Euclid High School inspired one of his students to become a tattoo artist.
“Take interest in what they do outside of the classroom,” said Jared.
These teachers and their stories were the most overwhelming emotion I’ve felt since living in this city. The dedication they pour into changing lives extends way beyond the classroom. They are doing so much more than just teaching kids.
Make time. I urge you.
Skip a day at the gym. Push aside that happy hour. Have your neighbor pick up the kids from practice. Don’t rush home from work to watch a television show.
The best thing you can do with your time? Give it to others in need of a helping hand.
#Give10. You’ll never believe how much something as small as loading supplies in a car will change your perspective.