As none other than Fred Rogers once said, “Anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.” Here are the stories of three of the countless unsung heroes who are diligently making a difference for children — during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
Jennifer Martin: Austin, Texas
What do you do if you’re a teacher and — during a pandemic lockdown — the public library closest to your school is about 15 miles away? If you’re Jennifer Martin of Austin, Texas, you construct a free library for kids in your garage.
“It was a no-brainer,” the veteran elementary-school reading teacher said. “In order to create a lifelong reader, a student has to find the joy of reading.” To help that process along, of course, the kids need access to books.
With more than 1,500 books of her own, Martin had a nice head start on the project. From there, she put a call out for donations and also spent her own money at the local used bookshop. Add in some ground rules (masks, social distancing, etc.) and it was a Field of Dreams moment come alive.
Martin built it and the students arrived — and not just to read. “When they come,” explained Martin, “they get to see you and talk to you, and we’re talking books.”
Terrance Newton: Wilmington, Delaware
Dr. Terrance Newton is the principal of Warner Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware, and he has a special connection to his students. Ask him about it and he’ll tell you about how his mother raised him and his five siblings as a single parent. Newton will also let you know about how one of his brothers was murdered on the streets of Wilmington.
“Every kid I see that comes in this building, I see myself,” he declared. “I want to stop all the crime in the City of Wilmington. I want to stop the shootings. If we don’t get a grip on our kids now, we’ll lose them. We’ll lose them to graveyards. We’ll lose them to incarceration. And we don’t want that.”
During the lockdown, Newton refused to lose touch with his “babies,” as he calls them. That was easier than it may sound. You see, this principal is also a barber and he’s been giving his students free haircuts for years. He created a barbershop on campus and it’s become the go-to destination for kids needing to talk, to bond, and to get some encouragement.
“We talk about behaviors, we talk about academics, we talk about community,” said Newton. All this as he doles out much-needed validation, support, wisdom, and yeah… haircuts.
Basirat Olamide Ajayi: Lagos, Nigeria
When COVID-19 hit Lagos, Nigeria, like everyone else, math teacher Basirat Olamide Ajayi saw all the negative aspects. But she also identified an opportunity. “The positive impact is that we can use technology to teach our students, which I am very, very happy about,” she said.
Via Twitter, WhatsApp, and Instagram, Ajayi has been providing free math classes to almost 2,000 students during the pandemic — in Nigeria and beyond (she recently got a request from Canada). She does this by creating accessible 5-minute videos for the kids. Students are then given assignments and homework based on the video and this keeps Ajayi mighty busy. “Sometimes, I stay awake till 2 a.m. going through their assignments!” she exclaimed.
The dedicated but struggling math instructor’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. When a parent saw her on video solving math problems on white sheets, she promptly donated a whiteboard.
“The online teaching has made me feel that I can actually teach the whole world mathematics,” Ajayi pronounced. “They see me all over the world and that is enough to give me innermost joy.”
As I write this, much of the U.S. is trying to sort out the new school year with varying degrees of success. We can all take some comfort knowing there are innumerable teachers like Basirat Olamide Ajayi, Terrance Newton, and Jennifer Martin out there doing their best to keep community alive throughout the process.