Christmas Cheer

2020 has proven to be a year unlike any other, challenging us each in individual ways but also allowing for moments of growth and insight like never before. Here I’ve highlighted three stories that, for me, give me a moments pause and a bit of Christmas cheer. While there’s been challenges in 2020, it’s also given moments of joy and highlighted the beauty of the human spirit and human connection. Let’s dive in!

1 – Darrion Cockrell was named Missouri’s teacher of the year in 2020.

Darrion was one of six children to his parents, his mother was a teen mother and struggling with substance use. Darrion reports his mother was addicted to substances when he was born. At age four, Darrion’s father was murdered and he entered the foster care system at age six. Living in St. Louis, he began to hate school and by age 10, Darrion had been recruited into gang life. Today, Darrion has been able to verbalize what many children experience and can’t say “even though I was going to school, I couldn’t really focus. It’s hard to worry about homework when I’ve got to worry about putting food on our table […] when you’re living like that, your mind isn’t thinking about the future – you’re thinking about the present and maybe the next day”. Before he hit his teenage years, Darrion had begun engaging in all aspects of the gang, vandalizing property, violence in his community and more. Darrion reports he felt as though he had no future ahead of him and he was destined to end up like his friends “dead or in jail”.

Darrion was residing in foster homes as he entered middle school. It was at that time he met a counselor at Parkway Central Middle School who had started a basketball team to help at-risk students. This was to both provide a positive activity for their downtime while also encouraging their academic responsibilities. Over time, she got to know Darrion and would provide transportation to the games, she then learned about his living situation and at-home experiences. She knew in order for Darrion to reach his full potential he needed a safe environment to call home. At this same time the state was intervening and placing Darrion and his brother at a school for ‘juvenile delinquents’ hours away from his current home – the counselor who knew Darrion and his heart took action. She lobbied the court to become his legal guardian and he was instead placed at a local home for boys. This allowed him to remain in his current school system with the supports he’d developed. This changed the course of Darrions life and his future; as Darrion reports “she saved me.” At 14, Darrion states he started to receive the long-overdue help and support he needed. He began to receive support around his mental health, social skills and emotional needs – he states “I was able to shed a lot of that stuff I thought was necessary […] like just being hard, just being tough, not having empathy for others”.

As many teenagers do, Darrion found passion and an outlet in athletics, specifically football. While he relates to so many in this outlet, he received something that few teenagers in foster care or group homes do. Darrion developed a relationship with his coach, Dennis Kaeser who would drive Darrion to practice and over time Darrion was welcomed into their family. The Kaeser family fostered Darrion for the remainder of his high school years, and they were considered his family; “when I moved in with them, they changed my life”. He graduated high school, attended the University of Missouri – St. Louis and graduated with a degree in education. Darrion reports he realized he wanted to dedicate himself to others “I wanted to be someone who helped people”.

Darrion states he is so grateful for receiving Missouri’s highest honor for teachers, an award that only 51 others have received. Darrion is a physical education teacher who cultivates an environment of positivity, love and education. Darrion has created activities where parents and teachers can work-out together after school hours in order to foster relationships between parents and teachers. Darrion reports he wanted to create something like the Kaeser’s did for him, to work together towards a common goal “there’s no one person greater than a team or greater than each other. We’re all working together for something bigger than all of us, and that’s the success of these kids. It’s the success of this community” – Darrion is able to see the importance of relationships in education, in understanding a home circumstance in order to understand a child’s performance in school and to bring these two worlds together in order to maximize the support and understanding each child deserves. The principal of Darrion’s school describes him as “genuine, passionate, dedicated, humble and incredible positive […] he excels at developing trusting, respectful and caring relationships with all students.”

“He has an insatiable desire to empower his students to believe that they can persevere in the face of adversity and that learning can be fun!”
– Charity Schluter

Many of Darrion’s students and colleagues knew nothing of his background prior to him receiving this award and sharing its impact. His recognition has nothing to do with his history, it’s a testament of his presence presently. His experiences are just a beacon of hope for children and young adults experiencing life as Darrion did, to see a future for themselves, in him. After receiving this award, Darrion shared his story with the hope of inspiring students to take a different path stating “Your past, although it’s important, it doesn’t determine your future, you can make mistakes, and things can happen in your life but you can push through those.”

2 – Anthony Gaskin receives a standing applause

Anthony Gaskins is a UPS driver in Richmond, Virginia. On December 15th Anthony was continuing on his everyday delivery route when he was granted a beautiful surprise. The residents of a neighborhood lined the street cheering and applauding Anthony for his work and his presence throughout COVID-19. Hundreds of families were present with signs and gifts. Anthony’s supervisors from UPS were also in attendance, commemorating his hard work during the most challenging of times.

A neighbor, Patty, who had moved into the neighborhood during the COVID outbreak, organized this on Anthony’s behalf. She stated he continued to work, delivering over 180 times the average amount of packages this year versus past years. While doing this he makes each customer feel seen, Patty states it was Anthony who made her feel welcomed into her new home when it was so hard to meet neighbors and adjust to her new residence stating “it was terribly lonely and he was always the highlight of my day”.

When he turned down the street that December day and saw lines of cars, kids on bikes, families on foot he waited to continue driving. Slowly he drove down the road while children and adults held up signs, yelled his name, honked horns and rang bells, cheering for Anthony on his route. One neighbor noted “Anthony always smiles, waves and goes above and beyond to deliver packages with care – he makes you feel like a friend when you see him. He brightens our day […] cheers to you Anthony, thank you for all you do.” Another family notes the impact Anthony has had on their children – their child not seeing her grandparents in over a year due to the COVID outbreak, noting how hard this has been on the entire family. Not only does Anthony deliver packages from family members, he does so with a smile and a familiar wave. Anthony brings more than deliveries to these homes and this community, he brings a feeling of comfort, he brings a source of joy and he most certainly brings a smile.

3 – A high school opens a grocery store for those in need – with a unique payment method.

A high school in Texas ignited hope for more than just their local community when they opened a student-led grocery store to support families in need. In Sanger, Texas the store opened in November so students and local families could purchase necessities including toilet paper, meat and basic food items. How do they pay for these items? By a point system. The points are earned through good deeds.

43% of students in this school district are living at or below the poverty line and 3.6% of students are homeless. This initiative was to support these individuals and their families by ensuring there is food on every table. The high school partnered with First Refuge Ministries, Texas Health Resources and the grocery store Albertsons to get their store open. The students run it in its entirety from managing inventory, stocking the shelves and helping students find or bag the items they need.

“I love this school […] the store helped bring families’ spirits up during the pandemic, especially for people who lost family members. The students who come in are just so happy, they always have a smile on their face.”
– Preston Westbrook, junior at the high school and store manager

You do not need to be a student strictly at the Linda Tutt High School in Sanger to access this resource. Students in the entire school district, north of Dallas, and their families can buy whatever they need using a number of points, which is initially set depending on the size of their family. After that, students can earn points for outstanding performance in school, completing good deeds (these points are awarded by teachers or staff), or completing jobs around the school such as helping out in the library or mentoring other students. This school promotes kindness and community through this initiative, “one thing we really push for is students earning points by going above and beyond in the classroom or doing something kind. These are the things we celebrate, and we’ll call home and tell parents their student got a positive office referral and they get a reward for that”.

The store does more than help families cope with food insecurity, students who participate in this program are learning math skills, customer service, supply management and work ethics. These lessons will serve them for years to come. This provides life skills to teens in a setting promoting understanding and compassion – much needed in our current society, while also meeting immediate needs of those it serves. This breaks down barriers among peers as well, abolishing pressures to hide poverty or food insecurity especially amid the COVID-19 outbreak, allowing a safe haven for students to have their needs met without fear.

On December 15th the store opened for the entire community in Sanger. While this is a small school district, they are promoting the importance of community and giving back. The outreaching of support has been endless, schools and communities outreaching asking how they too can start a similar program in their community. This school states “it’s really exciting for us to know our little town is spreading good”. Just a holiday reminder that no impact is too small.

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