By Rose Mary Saraiva

SOUTH YARMOUTH — We are all very familiar with heroes and what they represent — freedom, a break from tyranny, or just there to save the day. Most modern day heroes have super strength, can soar through the air, or have some other supernatural power that helps them right the wrongs of society. 

Recently Susan Mazzarella, CEO of Catholic Social Services, and I had the opportunity to meet with real life heroes who are moving mountains. Not the type of heroes you would expect — they were not front-line workers, officers, medical professionals or even in the military; they were a group of middle school students ranging from fifth through eighth grade. Twenty students from St. Pius X School in South Yarmouth, along with 37 students from the kindergarten class, made a major impact in their community and one of our sites.

Students from St. Pius X School in South Yarmouth announced what charity they were working for in a picture used for social media

Ann Dailey, principal at St. Pius X, explained that each year the students partner with local nonprofit organizations, a tradition that was put on hold during the pandemic. This partnership involves raising awareness and collecting items and donations for the chosen organizations. Once the four organizations are selected, they are asked to send a representative who relates the mission, history, and how service the entity provides for the community. The main focus is to help the students understand what the program does, who it serves, and how the students can help. 

At St. Pius X, the middle school students are divided into four houses: St. Anthony, St. Elizabeth, St. Teresa and St. Veronica. During the charitable partnership, each house is paired with an organization. St. Anthony House, along with the third-graders, worked to collect items for Cape Kids Meals. St. Elizabeth House, with the help of the kindergarten students, collected items for Catholic Social Services (St. Joseph’s House). St. Teresa House, assisted by the second- and fourth-graders, gathered items for Katelynn’s Closet. And last but not least, Veronica House, together with the Pre-K and first grade, collected items for The Family Pantry of Cape Cod. 

Students were given a list, which they could share with their families, of what was most needed by the organization and those they served — beginning a drive to collect the items. In addition to running the drive, the students competed for “likes” and “shares” on social media. Using Instagram and Facebook, the students promoted their nonprofit, shared information about what it does for the community, and urged family and friends to “like” and share their page with others. Soon the groups began to rack up the “likes” and “shares,” and all four houses garnered a total of 4,242 people reached or “likes.” The winning house was St. Elizabeth, with 1,490 people reached.   

What did this mean for the students? It was not only a chance to give back but to also help raise awareness of the needs in a community and what resources exist to help individuals. The only reward the students received was a chance to earn a “dress down” day for the house with the most “likes and shares.” 

Young members of the Chan Family and students at St. Pius X School in South Yarmouth deliver collected items to a Cape Cod shelter.

For the students of St. Elizabeth House, it was an opportunity to explore the effects of homelessness, how they can make a difference, and the importance of understanding the need to recognize the person as a person, rather that the label society gives them, ”homeless.”  

When the children who participated in gathering items for St. Joseph’s were asked how it made them feel, the answers varied. They ranged from the profound — it was “rewarding to help people hope for a better life,” to it was “fun and made me feel good,” “made me happy, happy,” and simply “rewarding.” Kristen Chun, one of the parents present, put it this way: “To be someone who can make a difference — it is so great for the child.” 

As Mazzarella spoke to the students, she told them how impressed she was with their gift, creativity, and generosity, letting them know that she was looking at the “faces of heroes.” The are the faces, she continued, that instilled hope into the lives of so many who often feel like outcasts — facing loneliness and isolation. The students then shared their thoughts on how their kindness and compassion made the recipients feel. Those who helped deliver the items said that they saw the joy on the faces of not only the staff and volunteers, but the “guests” who would benefit the most from their selfless act. 

The students shared that they could sense that they no longer felt alone, and that someone did “care” about them, that “they were loved by more than just their families,” and that somehow, it helped them “feel accepted and hopeful.” As one student put it, “Some people think they are just people on the street, but they are people who just want and need to be loved.” For those at the shelter, it was the knowledge that they were “seen” and recognized as a sister or brother in Christ, deserving of love and compassion and to be treated with dignity and respect.

Mazzarella then asked the students what their family’s reactions were to what they were doing. Some parents learned about nonprofits that they did not know existed in their communities. Others learned how great the need was, a great example of children educating their parents and helping them see the world through their eyes. Many were thrilled that their child was able to be the difference in the world, and that they set out to do just that. And of course, for many of the parents — this was a moment to feel proud of their child, because as one family put it, “It is the right thing to do.”

The students from St. Elizabeth House have a motto “Belief in Action,” a motto, that the students penned when the house was established years ago. The current day students live by that motto, as is evident in the charitable work they do, living up to standards set by their patron saint — St. Elizabeth of Portugal, who focused on helping the less fortunate, the hungry, and the ailing.

But the generosity did not end with the actions of the students. The parents got involved as well, promising to match whatever funds the students raised. The students of St. Elizabeth House hosted a “dress down” day to raise funds, in addition to the items collected, which netted them $465 to benefit St. Joseph’s. The parents group, The Friends of St. Pius X School, had already agreed to match what was raised, but opted to not only double the amount, but decided to increase the donation to $1,000. In keeping with the theme of service, the parents, along with some of the students, delivered both a check and the items collected. In the words of Anne Frank, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world,” — and these students did just that. 

The most significant message in everything that was accomplished by all the students at St. Pius X, is best described by the words of Mother Teresa, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

The students, the staff, and the parents all proved that from the humblest of beginnings, great things can be accomplished.