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A Community of 'Angels'

"The Carstens Angels are a manifestation of our school's intricate mission to transform our entire community, one neighborhood at a time," says Abby Phelps, a parent/community education specialist at Carstens Elementary School in Detroit, Michigan.

The Carstens Angels began when a generous benefactor offered turkeys for the students' Thanksgiving meals with their families, a tradition that continues.

The school's "angels" got their start when a benefactor who had attended Carstens Elementary as a child offered to provide a Thanksgiving turkey for every student enrolled. The gift was especially meaningful for the children because 97 percent of them receive lunch for free or at a reduced price. Over time, other "angels," such as local churches, have joined in the effort and supplied food baskets to ensure that every family has the necessary ingredients for a true celebration.

Prior to delivery of the turkeys, a teacher and the school counselor determine how many students within a family will receive a turkey. For example, a family with three students at Carstens may receive two turkeys. On delivery day, the students are called by class and teachers help them to label the items with their names when they return to the classroom.

Gail Nawrock has been a social worker at Carstens for more than ten years. She is the primary photographer and "public relations specialist" for the Carstens Angels, spreading the word among district personnel about the good works that are accomplished with the help of the benefactors.

"What has impressed me most about this program is that it is an idea conceived by one person who found a welcoming recipient," shared Nawrock. "Our principal, Dr. Theresa Mattison, is the spirit behind the program. She welcomes community partners and provides the support for the program to work well. It is done with little fanfare and virtually no overhead."

Students have told Nawrock that they feel happy and proud about taking home a big part of their Thanksgiving dinner. But the Carstens Angels program doesn't stop with turkey. Nawrock reports that an annual distribution of sleeping bags invariably coincides with some of the coldest days of the year.

Students at Carstens Elementary hold
sleeping bags that have been donated
by the "Carstens Angels,"
a group of community supporters.

"It was heartwarming last year when two girls declined to take their sleeping bags," she recalled. "They had been recipients other years and asked us to keep their sleeping bags for new students who came in to Carstens. They were responding to the act of kindness with their own generosity, of their own volition."

Carstens' community partners include The Skillman foundation, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, the Junior League, Junior Achievement, Communities in Schools, The Southeastern Village, and Chrysler Corporation. The priceless moments generated by those groups would fill an encyclopedia, Phelps adds, but what has impressed her most is the spirit of service that the Carstens Angels inspire. This became clear to her when she was approached by a child in the cafetorium at the end of one school day.

"A second grader came up to me as I was cleaning up from a special activity and said, 'Excuse me, Ms. Phelps,'" she recalled. "I turned and looked around. 'Yes,' I responded, 'how can I help you?' He stated, 'No, I came to help you.'"

The student expressed his desire to "take care of" Phelps and immediately took the broom from her hand. With the help of friends who gladly pitched in, he finished her cleaning tasks.

"Such youth, and so much wisdom," mused Phelps. "Service with a smile and not a regret! Apparently, our virtues are influencing everyone, from the eldest to the youngest."

Staff members at Carstens model service on a daily basis as they arrive at school thirty minutes early to accommodate students who must leave their homes early due to parental obligations. Whether they arrive early or late, the students have the opportunity to enjoy a satisfying breakfast before their school day begins.

"After school is dismissed, our caring staff remains with students until they are picked up by their parents or elder siblings," added Phelps. "That shows that we do care. Being committed to serving as opposed to being served empowers us with the standards of unquestionable excellence and achievement."

In spite of the inevitable disruption to the teaching day that donations may bring, all staff members at Carstens agree that the support of their benefactors is a wonderful gift. Everyone is grateful for the assistance and generosity of the Carstens Angels.

About This Article

The ideas for articles in this Partners for Student Success series come from annual collections of Promising Partnership Practices by the National Network of Partnership Schools. Established by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, NNPS is dedicated to bringing together schools, districts, and states that are committed to developing and maintaining comprehensive programs of school-family-community partnerships.

"Based on more than a decade of research and the work of many educators, parents, students, and others, we know that it is possible for all elementary, middle, and high schools to develop and maintain strong programs of partnership," NNPS director Joyce L. Epstein told Education World.


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