Each year, Christina Valladares would encourage her students to donate canned goods to the homeless for Thanksgiving. She would collect the items, pack her car, and choose an organization to give the donations to. But the process changed in 2014, when she started working at the Academy for International Education Charter School in Miami Springs.
“I have taught at four schools throughout my teaching career, but I have never had the kind of response I got here,” Valladares said.
The tuition-free charter school started the tradition in 2014, when Valladares joined the team. “In the first year, we had 1,800 cans, and I wasn’t prepared for that,” she said. “I called the Salvation Army and they came to pick it up.”
Each year, the goal is to collect more items than the previous year. The students donated 2,000 items in 2015 and 2,773 items this year to the Miami Rescue Mission.
“I chose the Miami Rescue Mission because I believe in what they do,” Valladares said. “They specialize in the homeless community, which is often overlooked.”
Valladares aimed to teach the children that homelessness isn’t laziness, but is often a product of domestic violence and mental illness.
“I wanted the kids to have something they can touch and put into boxes and be more involved — instead of just having their parents donate money,” she said.
There were three classes nominated as top donors: Imera Rueda’s kindergarten class with 273 items, Lourdes Camji’s fourth-grade class with 247 items, and Cristina Mercedes’ third-grade class with 209 items.
“It was a little challenging because this is my first year teaching kindergarten, but I knew we could do it,” Rueda said. “I encouraged them and I rewarded them; I used an app to tell the parents about the drive, and students would bring me boxes every day.”
Rueda also used a behavioral management plan to encourage her students to donate. Each time students brought in cans, they were allowed to move up on the color-coded behavioral chart.
Purple was the highest. “Some brought in a lot of cans, so I would just tell them, ‘You know what, skip to purple,’ ” she said.
For Camji’s class, the parents are what made the difference. “These students are very giving, and they have wonderful parents who will support them,” she said.
That statement holds true for Isabella Paez, 9, who persuaded her mom to donate the extra cans of food from her preschool, Precious Years Christian Learning Center in Miramar.
“My mom has really big cans that are left over, so I convinced my mom to bring them so that we can help others,” Isabella said. “This drive makes me want to help others when I’m older by giving food, water and blankets.”
All three winning classes received a certificate and were visited by Natasha Zarzosa, campaign and outreach coordinator for Miami Rescue Mission’s Miami campus.
“I think it’s fantastic, being a school of 520 students and still being able to raise 2,000 cans — it’s incredible,” Zarzosa said. “We depend heavily on our volunteers, donors, supporters, and what I love about AIE is that the students know what the purpose is, and as the next generation, they can help us put an end to homelessness and poverty.”
Valladares will no longer teach next year. Instead, she will be focusing on her master’s in family therapy at Carlos Albizu University, but she plans to do interventions and be a substitute teacher while completing her internship.
“I think it’s very important to teach children at an early age to have a passion for those in need, especially those in the homeless community,” she said. “I know the tradition of collecting food for the homeless will continue here, even when I have moved on.”
For information about volunteer opportunities with the Miami Rescue Mission, visit www.miamirescuemission.com/volunteer.php.