Sometimes it is hard to tell how much an act of kindness can mean.
Just ask Khalilah Campbell-Rhone, the principal at Worthing High School in Houston, Texas, whose students were delivered about 1,500 Christmas gifts from Hillsboro High School students late last month.
“First of all, it wasn’t just the school and kids, it was an entire community that those kids impacted,” Campbell-Rhone said. “They were grateful that someone from so far away thought enough of them to do something like that for them. They didn’t know that someone from that far away would think to do something like that. It gave them the thought that they should pay it forward, too, and now they are planning a project to do something for someone else.”
The project was initiated by Mindy Lawson, who also teaches language, literature, creative writing and English at Hillsboro High School. She decided one day it would be nice to do something for students in the Houston area whose lives had been turned upside down by Hurricane Harvey.
Lawson pitched the idea to her Hillsboro students, and they took off running with it.
Those students, most of them members of Thespian Troupe 5938, took the idea to fellow students and school administrators, and before long a project dubbed the “Hillsboro to Houston Holiday Gift Drive” was launched.
The students said they ran into a few snags at the beginning, and even questioned whether they could pull off such a large project, but eventually they collected about 1,100 gifts, raised about $1,100 to buy 400 more gifts, then started doing lots of gift wrapping and planning the trip.
“I originally thought, ‘This is crazy,’” said student Annaliese Fite. “This is a big school. How are we going to collect 900 gifts and then get them there?”
According to Lawson, Worthing High School is located in one of the poorest sectors of Houston, and has an enrollment of about 815 students, with 99 percent being minorities and 95 percent from economically disadvantaged families. Most of them lost their homes due to floods caused by the late August hurricane.
Nine Hillsboro students who gathered in Lawson’s classroom Friday afternoon to reflect on the project said they liked the idea from the beginning.
“For us to be able to touch the hearts of roughly 1,000 kids who had nothing, basically, and had lost everything … we wanted to give them as much of a Christmas as we could,” Sydney Sears said.
Alexandra Martinez-Mendez said the project was special to her because she knew some people in the Houston area.
“I wanted to make this happen for them, even if it was just getting them something little. I tried to emphasize that a lot of times when we have disasters in areas around the country, we kind of see it and then forget about it, and you don’t realize that they’re in a situation with real students just like us and you have to try to help them anyway you can.”
Emma Horick said that sometimes kids from Hillsboro may not think they have as much as kids in larger cities, but those thoughts fade when she thinks about kids like those from Worthing High School. She said that after communicating with the Worthing staff, the Hillsboro group learned that the students there had all the essentials they needed shortly after the flood, but did not have little things that make life more pleasant.
“It was just nice to give them things they wanted rather than things they needed,” Horick said.
A couple days after Christmas, Hillsboro residents Jon and Laura Pickering-Polstra, their five children – high schoolers Gideon and Zebadiah, eighth-grader Duncan, seventh-grader Elena and third-grader Zane – along with Lawson, loaded into a 15-passenger van packed with gifts for the 18-hour drive to Houston.
When they arrived at Worthing High they said they found a huge group of people lined up around the school.
“I saw some mothers with five to six kids in tow. That’s what really hit me,” Zebadiah Pickering-Polstra said. “It proves how much a little thing like that can raise somebody’s spirit.”
The gifts were stacked on tables in the Worthing library and separated to be gender appropriate. Then about 15 people at a time entered the library and were allowed to pick three gifts for each child and one gift for each adult. Two big boxes were left over. Worthing staff planned to give them to students who needed them the most when they returned to school after Christmas break.
In return, the Worthing staff gave the Hillsboro entourage a basket filled with Worthing-themed items.
Gideon Pickering-Polstra said that as he was watching people pick up their gifts, “I was smiling because we were helping all these people. I noticed that they were getting presents they don’t normally get, and I was like ‘whoa.’ Sometimes in Hillsboro we take for granted everything we, or at least I, have in comparison to the rest of the world.”
The nine students who gathered Friday to talk to The Times-Gazette said the experience was so uplifting that they want to do something similar next year.
“It feels really good to have done this,” Sears said. “I didn’t do it to have someone tell me I did something nice. It was knowing that I did a good thing and that I touched those kids’ hearts.”
Martinez-Mendez said the group is proud of what they accomplished.
“A little kindness and collective charity is good for the soul,” Horick said.
“It was a really great experience and I don’t think I’m ever going to forget it,” Martinez-Mendez said. “We had our ups and downs, but now we know how to go about it.”
Rebecca Rust said, “It’s something you can say later down the line that we gave Christmas to someone who probably wouldn’t have had it otherwise.”
Lawson said she could not be more proud of her students.
“They’re awesome. They’re a good group of kids,” she said. “They have my heart. And the fact that they want to do it again is everything.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or [email protected]