From Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work

A Pebble in the Water

We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.

Walt Kelly, “Pogo”

The events leading up to the proudest moment in my 28-year teaching career began on Monday, December 9, 1990. Our troops were engaged in Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia. I was in an after-school faculty meeting in the high school cafeteria. The computer coordinator told us about Project Desert Shield, created by former Chicago Bears football great, Walter Payton.

She explained that he had chartered a plane for Sunday to fly to the Persian Gulf to personally deliver gifts and donated items from the Chicago metropolitan area. We were asked to invite our students to sign Christmas cards, and to write pen pal letters to cheer up our soldiers during the holidays.

As I was driving to school that Tuesday, I remembered spending Christmas in the Philippine Islands when I was in the Peace Corps in the 1960s. I had received cookies from home. What a difference they made! I had felt loved and cared for. I started thinking that if each student contributed 50 cents, we would have $60 to buy cookies to send on the plane on Sunday.

When I asked each of my five classes that Tuesday about contributing 50 cents, I got total support. As the day progressed and word spread about our cookie project, the National Honor Society volunteered to contribute paperbacks. Then the work program coordinator said her class would fill up Christmas stockings with candy.

On Wednesday morning, I went to the main office and told the principal’s secretary about my students raising money for cookies, and what the other classes were doing. I asked her if the administration would make a donation. The principal agreed. I was so delighted that I then asked her if she would call the district office and see if the central administration would also contribute. They, too, agreed to support our project.

When I gave my class a running total of what we had collected, we decided that we were going to have over $150 to spend, so we could purchase more than cookies. We compiled a list of items that family members were encouraged to send overseas, and three students from each class volunteered to form a shopping committee.

On Thursday, I went to the faculty lounge for lunch and enthusiastically shared the news of the school’s involvement in Project Desert Shield. One listener said that sand insects were getting into packages sent overseas and suggested I call a popcorn company to see if it would donate empty metal containers.

In addition to empty containers, the popcorn company offered to donate several cases of popcorn. When I gave my daily report to the classes and told them the response from the popcorn company, my students started brainstorming about other ways they could help through their parents’ workplaces.

By the end of the school day on Thursday, we had collected $260. Armed with an official letter telling about the school’s involvement in Project Desert Shield, our shopping committee members left to make their purchases.

When I got to my classroom on Friday morning, I was surprised to find the custodians unloading flats of boxes. The 15 committee members came in, one by one, with their purchases. They were very excited. They told me that they had difficulty paying for anything because the merchants wanted to make donations. We were so overwhelmed with boxes and cases, we couldn’t fit them all into the school van. The principal had to call central administration and request a truck. We filled that truck with over $2,000 in products. Then we all gathered at the back of the truck for a picture with a banner that read, “Elk Grove Cares . . . Merry Christmas!”

I went back to my empty classroom, where a few hours before the room had been filled with animated and purposeful students. I thought how fulfilling this project had been and how much support and encouragement I had received. I remember sitting there in the silence, thinking, Okay, God, I get it. I know now why I’m in the classroom.

The following Monday, I asked each of my students to write a paragraph on Project Desert Shield. Some wrote that they would get involved in the community when they grew up. A few mentioned how one person can make a difference, and one said it was like the ripples that form when you throw a pebble in the water.

But the response that touched me the most was the one by the student who wrote, “Mrs. O’Brien, I was ready to kill myself this week. Then I got on the committee and saw I was accepted by the others, and . . . thank you.”

Sally K. O’Brien

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