First published in the Nov. 26 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
By Jonathan Williams / The Review
“Doing something good might not change the world, but it can change someone’s world.”
That is the motto that drives Monterey Hills Elementary School’s 4th-grade students and their teachers in their years-long quest to raise money for humanitarian causes. After six years and close to $45,000 later, the project continues, most recently sending $9,010 to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service to assist with Afghanistan’s refugees fleeing the Taliban takeover of their nation.
The project began back in 2015 when students advocated for a campaign to help families ravaged by the Nepal earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people and injured more than 22,000. Banding together, students assembled a plan to raffle minerals to the student body and their parents. Funds have also been donated to send Balinese girls to high school, help the homeless, build homes for veterans and assist with wildlife rescue.
“In my mind it’s not about politics; it’s about people suffering,” said Laurie Thackery, one of the Monterey Hills teachers who spearheaded this project. “So, you have to put yourself in [refugees’] shoes. They’re trying to get out and they’ve helped a cause. It’s just devastating. Our hearts were just aching.”
Thackery, who has taught in the district for 23 years and lives in South Pasadena, said she would watch the news, in particular to keep up with the deteriorating situation in the South Asian nation that the United States spent 20 years attempting to rebuild after overthrowing the Taliban in 2001.
She is an avid traveler and is a thrill-seeking ice climber when she’s not in the classroom. Dotted along the walls of her blue and green 4th-grade classroom hang pictures of her many trips from around the world.
“I try to share with my kids a lot about what I’ve seen and what I’ve done,” Thackery said, “because I want them to dream. I want them to realize that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”
Along the columns and several rows of desks were egg cartons filled with minerals. Thackery has collected these for nearly 25 years, and her love for geology is embedded in her curriculum. Students earn “points” for meeting deadlines, participation and acts of kindness. Then, students can use points to buy a mineral of their choice.
“You don’t get anything around here. You earn it or you lose it,” Thackery said. “I have kids that have gone to Stanford and Yale, and they tell me that they still have their egg cartons.”
Around six years ago, a colleague of Thackery’s asked about the system. Today, all of the school’s 4th-grade classes incorporate minerals into their lessons.
Thackery said this led to the birth of the fundraising project when the Nepal earthquake struck in 2015. She said her students were relentless in suggesting they start a schoolwide raffle for a large mineral she had, and after some reluctance, she approached Principal Laurie Narro with the idea.
She was met with overwhelming support. The project’s first year was a massive success, raising more than $6,000 for the families affected by the earthquake in Nepal.
“It feels like the right thing to do,” Thackery said, her eyes welling up. “One of my messages to my students is to not complain to me about homework. I’ve been to a lot of countries and [a lot] of children on this planet are not going to school at their age. They’re done. They might just be sitting in dirt on the side of the road with nothing to look forward to. No job. Nothing. When you’re privileged, you have an obligation to think of other people.”
Erica Hooper, another 4th-grade teacher at Monterey Hills, joined the school in 2016, initially in 5th grade and eventually began working with Thackery.
“Every time she talks about her son who is my age, I feel like she is my work mom.” Hooper said about Thackery. “She’s always there to listen to me ranting about my daughter. Our conversations are not just about work. She’s an explorer. She’s a hiker. That’s something that I can connect with. She and I have this connection.”
Hooper said during her first year, the mineral program was something that caught her attention because it encouraged the students to focus and do well in class. She added the relationship with the other 4th grade teachers is unshakable and feels the overwhelming support from her colleagues, along with the community, is unmatched.
“It’s just so empowering to see how much support that we get from our little community,” Hooper said, “and how much we can help someone out there who needs it.”
Narro, who lives in South Pasadena and grew up in nearby El Sereno, has been principal of Monterey Hills for 10 years. She lauded the efforts of her teachers to impart worldly values to their students.
“It is a piece of empowerment for the children,” Narro said. “It really does give them an idea that they can make a huge difference.”
Lorraine Rodriguez, a student in Thackery’s class, said she appreciated the opportunity to help others in the world.
“I feel excited because I was happy to help the refugees,” Rodriguez said. “It’s better to help people rather than to just do nothing and watch people suffer.”
Much of the support for the campaign runs through the students, teachers and the parents. Lorena Rodriguez, Lorraine’s mother, said she’s happy to impart upon her daughter the values she learned growing up in the Los Angeles area.
“We were raised like that,” Lorena Rodriguez said. “We always tried our best to help people in need. So that’s what we’re trying to teach our children to do.”