Karen Heller: Giving despite having little

The third and fourth graders in Marcia Sparagna's class at the John Wister School raised $450 for cancer research.
The third and fourth graders in Marcia Sparagna's class at the John Wister School raised $450 for cancer research. (APRIL SAUL / Staff)

Elementary students in Germantown learn the importance of charity.

Posted: May 21, 2012

John Wister elementary in Germantown is the little engine that could.

"We're a quaint, small school," says teacher Marcia Sparagna, "but there's a big sense of community there."

In her classroom, two students clasp hands and dance while an unexpected voice - Dean Martin's - croons: "When the moon hits your eye, like a big pizza pie, that's amore."

The jubilation in Room 211 is due to Sparagna's third and fourth graders winning a pasta party for raising more money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society than any other Wister class, $450 in three weeks, predominantly in coins, the majority pennies, a whole lot of pennies.

That's mighty impressive considering there are only 14 pupils in Sparagna's class.

And that they are special-education students with a vast range of learning and behavioral challenges.

And that Keion Hill, 11, was exempted from collecting because he's a two-time cancer survivor, a kidney taken out at age 3, and undergoing chemo again at age 9.

And perhaps most profoundly because Wister is steeped in poverty, 95 percent of the students qualify for free meals - greater than the Philadelphia School District average - yet students raised $1,250 to treat cancer.

So hooray for Gary, Serena, Dante, Marquann, Keenan, Khyrel, Alaya, Adonis, Abriana, Tierre, Destiny, Idris, Saleim, and Keion!

"When children give back, even though they're technically economically disadvantaged, they realize they have so much," says principal Donna Smith, who, during her decade at Wister, charted a course of philanthropy. "They understand how lucky and blessed they are."

After a letter-writing campaign to legislators, Wister students took ownership of an abandoned corner at East Bringhurst and Wakefield, long a repository for trash and bad behavior. They built a little park that they lovingly tend, mulching and planting flowers. They grow crops to sell at the Germantown farmers' market.

Smith works 12-hour days, and has helped 20 parents obtain their GEDs. She had a washing machine and dryer donated to the school because some children often arrive in soiled clothes. "The majority of parents are not working. Many of them don't have a lot at home," she says. "I go and visit. There's not a lot of furniture. Some of the children sleep on floors."

Yet those children give.

Wister launched letter-writing campaigns to Children's Hospital patients and to families of military personnel serving overseas. Students raised money to help people with AIDS, breast cancer, epilepsy.

One teacher told Smith, "I'm going to go broke bringing in all my change for leukemia and other illnesses."

As is true at so many district schools, Sparagna, assistant Lynette Houston, and the rest of the faculty routinely empty their wallets for classroom supplies, as well as for backpacks, clothing, and other necessities for their charges.

Wister has also been the recipient of considerable largesse. The exterior walls are wrapped in brilliantly colored paintings, courtesy of the Mural Arts Project. Two years ago, the Eagles visited and donated an entire playground and basketball courts, where before there had been only crumbling asphalt.

The school brims with affection. Smith says: "I hug all my babies." Sparagna, 42, became a teacher six years ago after years working in hospitality, fashion, and fitness. She has no children. "These are my children," she says as she dances them around her classroom.

"It is so good to raise money for kids that have cancer," Tierre Morse, 11, tells me. Alaya Bowles says: "I'm very excited. Maybe now they can find a cure." Saleim McFadden, 9, contributed $35 by "knocking on every door on my block three times."

So the winning noodles are nice, but giving is nicer.

"I am a cancer survivor and every body pledges helped me. Stay alive," Keion wrote on the bulletin board. "Now I am cancer free."

Sparagna remains in awe of her students' achievement.

"In light of all the cutbacks and deficits with public schools, isn't it amazing that one little tiny elementary school can come together?" she asks. "It doesn't matter what economic status you're in, charity is something that needs to be taught."

Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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