Search form

Growing Caring Citizens Through Good Works

Social studies teacher Peter White always felt compelled to help the less fortunate, and he spread and channeled his passion through a student club called Students for 60,000. Students have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for causes in the U.S. and adopted two Nicaraguan towns. Included: Tips for developing community service programs.

A woman in Nicaragua embraces social studies teacher Peter White during a visit in April 2005. It was his last visit to the country as the advisor to the club Students for 60,000.

Northport (N.Y.) High Schools social studies teacher Peter White grew up poor in Levittown, N.Y., during the era of suburban affluence of the 1950s and 1960s. White's upbringing instilled in him empathy for others living in poverty. At the same time, his childhood did not completely prepare him for the first time he saw severe poverty and homelessness in New York City, the rural South, and overseas.

Moved by what he saw, White was eager to have his students tackle real-life issues. In 1987, when some Northport students began visiting homeless shelters in New York City, White started working with them and the group called itself Students for 60,000, after the estimated 60,000 homeless people in New York City at the time.

Since then Students for 60,000 has grown in numbers and scope; about 200 students participate in the club, and it has drawn community members in as well. In 2004 Students for 60,000 raised $150,000 for its projects.

Members are involved in fundraising and community service, and have adopted two communities in Nicaragua, Chacraseca and Nuevo Amanecer. Students and teachers visit these two communities twice a year to bring clothing, medical and school supplies and have built homes and helped with other community projects. Students donated money to victims of the December 2004 tsunami and refugees in the Sudan.

Club members also visit a homeless shelter in New York City about five times a year, bringing clothing and other supplies, and to talk with the residents. They also are involved in local community service projects, including raising money for a Long Island food bank and mentoring and tutoring younger students.

In June 2005, though, the club said farewell to White, a former New York State teacher of the year and an attorney, who retired after 31 years of teaching. He made his last trip to Nicaragua as the club's advisor in April 2005. Other teachers are stepping up to shepherd the club, so the work of Students for 60,000 will continue.

White talked with Education World about the club, his passion for helping the less fortunate, and his desire to motivate students to become active, compassionate citizens.

Education World: What was the inspiration for starting Students for 60,000?

"To me, the essence of social studies, the reason we teach it at all, is so that we may be better citizens. Not just voters, not just taxpayers, but real good citizens, people who care about others. Concern for the need of others is the essence of social studies," says Northport High School social studies teacher Peter White, the advisor for Students for 60,000.

Peter White: I grew up poor by Long Island standards. With no father, no paycheck, and no car, we struggled to get by from month to month with a meager welfare check of about $180 per month for a family of a mother and four kids. We were the needy family that had to depend on church help at the holidays and other times of the year, like breaks at school, and got hand me downs from neighbors. Even some doctors looked the other way when my mom couldn't pay.

Of course, I "thought" I was poor until I uncovered folks in New York City and elsewhere, like in the rural South, who were far poorer than I was or thought I was. And this was before Nicaragua, where I first saw the matchstick legs, the shoeless, roofless, hungry people of the Third World. So I guess you could say that I've always felt a strong degree of empathy for the poor, for those hurt by poverty, for those, even though they may work hard and try, still cannot overcome what life has handed them.

Also, as a social studies teacher since 1970, I began to feel inadequate after teaching kids certain lessons. I would succeed in getting the often sensitive material out, in making it seem important, in communicating it to my high schoolers, then the bell would ring and they'd seem to go forth with business as usual. I was frustrated that it seemed not to mean as much as I wanted it to for them. In the early 1980s, a young boy assigned to do a quarterly assignment in my urban studies course visited a shelter in New York City and helped out for the day. He did this a few times and liked the experience. He got a few friends to help out and they called themselves the Committee on the Homeless.

The student, Lance, graduated in 1982 and the committee ended. Until 1986 that is, when Denise, now an assistant principal for the Commack, New York, schools, undertook the same type of work that Lance had four years earlier. The difference was Denise organized more kids, and began bringing bags and bags of good clothing she and her friends had collected to city shelters on a regular basis. They went to New York City at least monthly and helped out at soup kitchens and clothing distribution points. They gave themselves a name called Students for 60,000 because there were estimated to be 60,000 homeless persons in the city at that time.

I worked with them and was part of their meetings and suggested that they call themselves that because they were doing something "for" others, rather than other groups that are against something. We were for the poor. The point is that I had succeeded in getting kids to "do" something affirmative about real and meaningful problems in the world and local communities, not just hear about them in the classroom and then leave it behind and disperse when the bell rings.

EW: Why do you think this kind of "club" is important for schools to sponsor? Why do you think the club has attracted so many students?

White: I have always been a believer in on-site study. I believe that there is no substitute for the real thing. A virtual field trip is nowhere as useful and important as the real field trip. I have taken kids to New York City more than 800 times in my 31 years at Northport High School, to Boston, Massachusetts, at least 50 times, Nicaragua 30 or more, and Africa once. The lessons learned by the tens of thousands of participants will stick with them forever in a far more useful and intense way than had they learned them more passively. Every good social studies course ought to have these components: skills, content, values, and participation. I believe in breaking rank, taking a few calculated risks, and getting kids into the field to stretch their minds. Because, once stretched, such minds never go back to their original shape.

The club attracts a lot of students and also adults because somehow those involved over the years have managed to make community service seem "cool." That's how one adult member of the community put it once when he came to one of our meetings. Kids feel very empowered when they raise, for example, $15,000 in a single weekend, then get to meet, discuss, and finally decide on the best use for it. Student-raised money is student money, to be spent as students see fit. I am their advisor and do guide them, steer them, maybe, but the actual decisions are the students' decisions.

Also, the students do not raise money and turn it over to some larger agency like the American Red Cross. They are a direct-benefit group, which means that fully 100 percent of all money raised goes directly to the group's intended beneficiaries. Not one cent goes to administrative costs. When we have a car wash, we do not take the proceeds from the car wash to buy pizza or doughnuts for the kids; they kick in from their pockets.

When we go to Nicaragua, they pay their own airfare, no project money, no money raised for the poor or the needy goes to airline tickets, or any other trip costs. They feel, and I instill in them, such a fiduciary responsibility. If a donor gave $10 to feed a starving child in Sudan, how could we take that money and use it for any other purpose? So kids feel like self-makers, the makers of very important decisions. They see problems in the local or world communities and they act on them and succeed in many ways. The problems in the world are real and important, not trivial or light. And many young people want to address those problems and feel that this club empowers them to do so.

EW: What is it about the communities in Nicaragua that keep you and the students going back?

White: Nicaragua is the poorest country in our hemisphere, and the U.S. did the most to make it that way. Going back to the days of William Walker, then right through the Somoza period (who we put up as a puppet and who we kept in and who stole hundreds of millions from his own people), the Contra War, and much more, right up to the present day where we are putting up free trade zones, using sweatshop labor, taking resources, gold, soon oil, taking, taking, taking...always taking. It is just that we citizens do all we can because of this history. To put something back. To show the Nicaraguan people that the U.S. also contains some good, right-thinking, generous people, too.

Also, Nicaragua has been devastated by nature, with earthquakes, drought, and hurricanes. Hurricane Mitch in October 1998 was the worst storm in our hemisphere's history, killing more than 10,000. In one town near where we work in Chacraseca, called Posoltega, 3,500 died in one town out of 16,000. One woman we know lost 72 relatives -- every uncle, aunt, cousin, she had -- gone.

We have built so many houses for those left hungry and homeless by Mitch, dozens of houses. Also there is the possible/probable future construction of a canal through Nicaragua. Right now, the world's biggest ships cannot fit through the Panama Canal, so they go around. These include oil ships and all kinds of ships involved in global transport. Nicaragua is the perfect place for anew canal, maybe a three-pronged canal: pipeline for oil, rail for containers, and wet for ships.

My guess, the canal will come, and the world will benefit and the Nicaraguan people will get nothing. Right now, Nicaragua is for sale; there are 300 miles of Atlantic and 300 miles of Pacific coasts for sale. Nicaraguans cannot afford to buy anything - with 65 percent unemployment and people living on $30 per month, no one buys oceanfront property. Some government officials will make out, and outsiders will someday own Nicaragua. It is sad. Finally, we have been privileged in Nicaragua to know some of the best, kind, patient, brave, loving, and hard-working people anywhere. They are great and we learn so much from them. My students sometimes go back for all four years of high school because they think of Nicaragua as a second home and the Nicaraguan people as family.

EW: What do you most hope students will learn from their work with Students for 60,000?

White: I hope that they learn that there are problems in the world that are not hopeless, that they can learn about them, and then have a positive influence on them. They understand that they cannot solve the world's problems, but if they focus on some things that are do-able, like adopting a community, a school, a town, a region, or a cause of one kind or another, they can have a major positive impact. They have dedicated themselves to the "needy," in accordance with Article XVII of the New York State Constitution that states, "The aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state." That is where all the right to shelter cases come from, and from whence much of New York state's poverty law comes from.

While certain politicians turn their backs, while some states deliver such low levels of benefits as to drive out their poor, New York always has done it better. We have such language in our state constitution, while other states do not. I teach my students that in assisting the needy -- and neediness may come from any income bracket -- whether people are poor or not, they are following the law. To me, the essence of social studies, the reason we teach it at all, is so that we may be better citizens. Not just voters, not just taxpayers, but real good citizens, people who care about others. Concern for the need of others is the essence of social studies.

The great professor Booker T. Washington said in his autobiography Up From Slavery that "The happiest individuals are those who do the most to make others useful and happy." Additionally, I hope my students learn that they do not have to be happy with or always accept the status quo, that they can bring about change by their actions, their decisions, their hard work, and follow-through and dedication. And when they achieve a few successes, they feel that it is true that they become better people and better citizens.

EW: How did your experiences with Students for 60,000 affect your lessons or your approach to teaching?

White: I try to make lessons in class meaningful so they create for students some opportunities to "do" something with the knowledge they acquire. For example, if we're studying the need for a park in an urban environment with the focus on New York City's Central Park, perhaps the greatest urban park in the world, it is one thing to teach about it in class. It is another to do a comprehensive walk of the park from top to bottom covering dozens of points of interest that kids will never forget. It is yet another to have them volunteer in the park, to clean up, to remove graffiti, to restore an area. Then the park becomes part of their lives and they become part of the park forever.

Similarly, if they study poverty, they can see a video, or read an article, or have a class discussion. But a risk-taking, opportunity-creating teacher, one with a vision and motivation, can take that new potential and have it cause some excitement for students. He can bring a speaker from the county's welfare department or a homeless family right into the classroom and have a panel discussion or lesson of some kind. He can also assign kids to work at a homeless shelter or a welfare agency, or at least make the arrangements for them to do it.

They can also visit a shelter, and interview and observe people and try to put themselves into the places of others. The students can spend the night in a shelter to truly feel what the life of the homeless is like. They can also gather things and bring them in, and raise money. Or like Students for 60,000, they can raise $180,000 a year and do life-saving projects throughout the local and world communities. The experiences kids and I have had with the club have taught us all to dream big and then to act on those dreams. I tell them that every so often, and I tell them to never, never, never forget the poor.

EW: What suggestions do you have for other teachers and schools that would like to sponsor their own large-scale community service efforts but don't know how to get started?

White: I would say that every school has students who want to serve and to learn by serving others. Most schools already have some available program or programs that aim to have students serve. It varies from school to school; in some places it is almost an affirmative obligation. Some teachers feel that these projects take too much time, or they won't be compensated, while other teachers coach, or do other things like tutoring, home instruction, etc. to make extra money. Why should or would they give of themselves for little to no pay? That is a tough thing to deal with.

Budgets often include money for buses for sports or to send the band to the local parade, but not to send kids to shelters. Those in community service often have uphill fights and kids and teachers are either unsuccessful in fighting those fights, or else are not motivated enough to do so. But if a club exists, like a National Honor Society, which has a service aspect to it, all the school has to is up the ante, motivate kids to do more far-reaching things, expand themselves, and stretch their minds. You don't need to start a new club; there probably are clubs in existence in most schools that could be directed to accomplish more.

Most [school officials] just don't dream big enough, they don't push the envelope, so to speak. They are afraid of risks. And when teachers and kids do come together with bigger ideas about participation and involvement, school officials often present obstacles. They are not risk- takers, but very conservative-minded when it comes to change. Schools are traditionally very conservative institutions. This is part of the battle. I say to those teachers and kids who really want to get involved in the lives of others in real and meaningful ways, to start small, but start. To accomplish something small, a bit of fundraising, a neighborhood project, whatever. Then get good press. The conservatives in their ivory towers cannot fight good press.

Once a few small projects have succeeded, and some good press is had, step up the tempo. Reach for more dollars. Kids will feel the power of raising their own money and then having ownership of it, and it will keep them coming back. A ninth grader who has had a big role in raising, say, $5,000 for a certain project, then being part of the discussion on how it is to be spent, then who gets to raise his hand and have an actual vote that counts, becomes a changed person.

These kids also have parents, who hear all about it, who may be proud of their child for his or her new found zeal and interest in the lives of others. These parents vote. It all works together. The key is to start small, but start. Rome wasn't built in a day, but someone must put the first column up.

One young teacher who worked with me for two years moved off Long Island and went to Vermont a year ago. He had been to Nicaragua twice with me as a chaperone. He is a brilliant, caring Spanish teacher. He accepted a teaching job at a school outside of Burlington, Vermont, with the condition that school officials allow him to organize a group for the needy and specifically to do foreign travel. His new group raised about $3,500, and in April he took 17 students and three adults to Nicaragua for a humanitarian/educational trip for ten days. While his whole trip was modeled after what Students for 60,000 does, modeling is fine. People should replicate what works. Then grow. This young teacher has his sights on Mexico and Bolivia. He is 28, with many years ahead of him, and many thousands of young people to teach.

EW: Will the club continue after your retirement? What, if any, involvement will you have with the club after you retire?

White: There are two Spanish teachers, Lauren and Elizabeth, who have chaperoned two and three trips, respectively. They are applying to be advisors after July 1, 2005 when I no longer work for the Northport schools. Also, a social studies teacher named Bill also is applying. My hope is that all three, who have great hearts, are hard-working, and great with kids will share the jobs of advisor and assistant advisor. I will be living nearby and can be called on to help them if and when as needed. I also am beginning a not-for-profit called Friends of Students for 60,000, Inc., which will be like an adult counterpart of the club, and something alumni and adults in the community can join. We are going to see.

This e-interview with Peter White is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.