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The Giraffe Heroes Project:
Encouraging Kids to
'Stick Out Their Necks'
For Others


Everyday heroes are toasted by the Giraffe Heroes Project! This organization, based in Langley, Washington, shares news of individuals who are making a difference in their communities. These heroes, called "giraffes," stick their necks out to help other people. With the guidance of the program, children are learning that they can not only find giraffes in their own communities, they can become giraffes themselves! Included: Comments from teachers and students who've been inspired by the Giraffe Heroes Project to help others.

Heroes graphic "I had taught middle school for 15 years when my husband decided he had to move to set up his blacksmithing shop," Jennifer Sand told Education World. One day, while exploring a tourist town near their new home, Sand walked into offices of a group called the Giraffe Heroes Project.

"Everyone in the office was completely energized and excited about what they were doing," Sand recalled. "I wasn't clear when I left what it was they did, but I knew I loved it. Then I checked out a movie from the library called It's Up to Us about the Giraffe Heroes Project and vowed to work there."

From her first encounter with the project, Sand was taken with the Giraffe Heroes Project's mission and became determined to assist in its growth. Today, she is the group's education director!

The Giraffe Heroes Project publishes character education and service-learning materials for children, promotes awareness of the efforts of individuals who are considered heroes for their work with various issues, and gives presentations for organizations and communities. It publishes a curriculum packet, called the Giraffe Heroes Program, that uses the stories of "giraffes" -- people from 8 to 108 who have stuck their necks out for others -- to introduce students to the benefits of service. After encountering the stories, students begin to seek out giraffes in their own communities, and later, they select a project that addresses a local issue and put a plan into action.

As the education director, Sand has many responsibilities, including "talking to educators interested in or already using the program and doing coaching, teacher trainings, workshops, and conferences; doing research for and helping produce curricula; supporting the group's regional directors around the United States; and getting out the word about the project.

"I talk to interesting people and tell inspiring stories," said Sand. "Our goal is to move children and adults to 'stick their necks out' for the common good."


Neil Brier, an eighth-grade life skills teacher at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, New Hampshire, has been using the Giraffe Heroes Program for several years. He notes an increase in caring on the part of his students over that time. Students have shown greater interest in the community service club, and class members have stood up for other students who were being taunted.

Brier says that the stories of the giraffes have been eye opening for his students. They have begun to compare the characteristics of celebrities, often viewed as heroes, with those of the real heroes discussed in the program. Students have invited giraffes they have met to come to school assemblies, and Brier reports that the program makes the students "much more aware of what people are doing in the community."

Among the issues Brier's class has addressed are theft prevention, recycling, literacy, and homelessness. Students have raised money to buy rain forest acreage and to send to Save the Children. But the most unusual project the students have chosen to do involves bats.

The largest bat population in New England was living in an old school nearby that had been converted to an inn. To save the bats, Brier's students educated the community about the benefits of bats. They gave presentations and made bat houses with the help of the woodshop teacher. The owners of the inn allowed the students to place the houses around the inn, and the bats took up residence in their new homes.

The bats were saved!

The Giraffe Heroes Project reports that this is a first for their organization -- children learning to become giraffes by saving bats.


Although the teaching of character was not the goal of the creators of the Giraffe Heroes Project's curriculum, it appears to be a by-product of sharing the giraffes' stories.

Ann Medlock, founder of the Giraffe Heroes Project, described the characteristics of the giraffes she has encountered: "The people whose stories we tell in the curriculum are brave, compassionate, responsible, independent, active, and outspoken. They look at the world around them with keen, caring eyes, observing for themselves what needs to be done and stepping forward to get it done, no matter what they have to give up or go through.

"Most kids think heroes are rich, talented, gorgeous, or bulletproof," Medlock said. "We define a hero as someone who sticks his or her neck out for the common good. A hero takes a risk -- a kid who bucks peer pressure to do something good is a hero. We also include adults who take risks."

The gripping stories of those individuals hold the attention of students and motivate them to look for others who share the same sense of responsibility for their community, even encouraging them to take on service projects themselves. Because students select their own projects, they are meaningful to the group, and the students have a vested interest in their success.


Michael Crisler is a child on a mission: to help others. Crisler has an unusual appearance because the bones in his face do not fit together correctly. For that reason, he has spent many days in the hospital and will continue to require treatment to correct the problem.

One might expect that Crisler's goal would be to collect funds to aid in his own recovery, but this young man has the needs of others on his mind.

Since the age of 5, when he packed up his own stuffed animals and sent them to children who had lost their toys in a flood, Crisler has been serving other people. Despite the doubts of his own family, he managed to raise $37,000 for victims of the Oklahoma City bombing -- far more than his lofty original goal of $20,000. He has also organized donations for a young girl's heart operation, patients afflicted with AIDS, and the Children's Miracle Network.

"If we all make a difference -- even a little bit -- one person at a time, then maybe when I grow up, the world will be a better place to live," said Crisler. "But we have to start now."


From coast to coast, students are founding and implementing service projects in their communities through their involvement in the Giraffe Heroes Program. The experience is proving to be challenging and illuminating for the children as they work together and develop respect for one another.

In Eatontown, New Jersey, Susan Cook's first graders focused on helping children who are hungry through organizations such as the Children's Defense Fund and Children's Hunger Education. As a result, she said, her students "have the sensitivity to take an issue to heart and want to do more."

Students in Bostic, North Carolina, took part in the Giraffe Heroes Program as an after-school activity. The students were so enthralled by the words of a visiting speaker from a local hospice that they "adopted" patients at the hospice and residents of a nursing home.

Another class of students in Park Ridge, Illinois, raised more than $2,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Children are learning more than the attributes of character through the Giraffe Heroes Program. They are finding out how they can make a difference. A few of them have expressed their appreciation for the project that introduced them to service.

"Giving is much better than taking," said student Xavier Ragland. "Being kind can help, and helping is kind. It's nice to be important, and it is important to be nice. If someone needs help, I will help them."

"Ever since I have learned about the Giraffe Heroes Project, I have wanted to help people that need it," said Kenny Ruffer. "When we started, I was scared. So I just thought about how to be kind, courageous, and persistent. Then I wasn't scared so much that I was not going to do it. Now I know that when you help someone, you get courage and it makes you feel great."

"I'm a lot nicer now than at the beginning of the school year. By the time everybody knows about the Giraffe Heroes Project, they will have no problems," stated Yi Chuan Zhoo.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Updated 01/07/2010