Rivers and teachers have a lot in common. Strong, persistent, challenging, flexible, and calming. But, it's their ability to nourish that makes them essential. Especially, teachers. Especially, now.
To better understand the 'especially' of teachers, I spent time recently capturing moments at Harlem Heights Community Charter School and the Heights Center in Fort Myers. The teachers' efforts, and those of professionals working alongside them, symbolize the selfless sacrifices being made in schools across Southwest Florida.
COVID-19, war, and societal issues are boulders in the river of reality that teachers are navigating. Parents drop their kids off believing that they will not only learn, but trusting that teachers, social workers, paraprofessionals, and administrators will nurture and protect them.
At days end, that belief and trust is rewarded in joyous reunions, made possible by those who like rivers, never stop giving.
In 1999, Kathryn Kelly organized a Thanksgiving outreach in the Harlem Heights community of Fort Myers through her church. Kelly met Ana Santiago during the outreach.
The poverty Santiago's family was living in was dire. The family included six children (1-9). Their battered three-room duplex had inadequate plumbing, no air-conditioning, and food in plastic bags hung from ceiling fans to prevent rats from eating it. There was little hope for change. But, sometimes a little hope is enough.
Compelled by Santiago's plight, Kelly formed the Heights Foundation in 2000. With help from private donors, the foundation got to work helping Harlem Heights families. The first project was purchasing and renovating a home through volunteer efforts and donated materials. When it was finished, Santiago and her family moved in.
The foundation launched after-school programs, summer camps, and community activities out of a Lee County building on Concourse Drive in Harlem Heights. Santiago's children attended.
Those programs were moved to newly built Heights Community Center in 2013. The Harlem Heights Community Charter School opened in 2016. The Heights Education Building was built in 2020, and is home to the early learning program and charter school.
Santiago's daughter, Daiana Morales' kids attend Heights' early learning program.
The sweetest gift
It's impossible not to smile while watching Candida "Candy" Nunez care for babies and toddlers at the Heights Center. For 17 years, the early learning program teacher has planted seeds of confidence, learning and love in tiny hearts.
How does she do it?
"Candy is thoughtful, caring, and devoted to the children," says Blanca Acosta, the early learning program's director. "And she hasn't missed any time," Acosta adds.
Nunez's ability to care for children goes beyond being reliable. With quiet questions and gentle hugs, she calms the storms of exploring children. An overturned cup of water, broken crayons, or falling letter blocks become learning opportunities.
When diapered bottoms bump into one another on the playground, Nunez unites little hands and explains carefulness. Frustration has never met Nunez. Patience is her closest friend.
"I'm so happy you're here," Nunez sings to the children throughout most days. They believe her.
Kelly Perzanowski teaches with unforced excitement. The former FGCU cross-country runner glides between students' desks asking questions and leaving clues to the answers. Perzanowski's fifth-grade students meet her challenges with curiosity and exuberance. Together, they explore language, math, history, science and the arts.
"They're capable of learning a lot. So, I challenge myself to find ways to help them," Perzanowski says.
Emphasizing reading is a way she gently pushes students forward. Each year her class adopts a book. This year's is "Alice in Wonderland" by Lewis Carrol. Students read other books out loud daily as well. Gathered around a half-circle table, students confidently read, as Perzanowski listens with her ears, eyes and heart.
And though Perzanowski challenges her students, she also gives them room to be themselves. In small groups, they work through lessons, brainstorm ideas, and go down rabbit holes of learning.
The students are unafraid to venture deep into thought, because they know Perzanowski is always there to help them find their way home.
Listening to heal, help
Nancy Sanchez listens to students' thoughts as if they are the most important that she's ever heard. The Heights' social worker also listens to students' parents with the same caring intensity. She then finds ways to help them heal and access needed resources.
"I understand their struggles, because I'm from a low-income community too" says Sanchez, who grew up in Immokalee, a place where families work to not only survive, but thrive. The Masters of Social Work degree adorning her office wall is one testament to Sanchez's desire to help. Her persistence is another.
When the pandemic prevented students from coming to Heights, it also made helping their parents access resources like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, tough. But Sanchez is tougher. She spent countless hours on the phone with agencies to ensure students' families got the help they needed. "Somebody has to do it, and I am happy to do it," says Sanchez.
Helping students unpack what's on their minds and in their hearts are also meaningful responsibilities Sanchez is happy to carry out. Through behavior, play, and talk therapy, she guides students to places of understanding, accountability and hope. She leads group character education classes several times a week.
Sanchez places great emphasis on following up with students and their families. "I want to make sure the students and their families know I'm here for them," says Sanchez. "That I care."
The beat goes on
The music never stopped playing in Melissa Barlow's heart when COVID-19 separated her from her students in Spring 2020.
Barlow, Heights' director of arts and community programs, walked the school's empty halls determined to keep her student's growing passion for music alive. "If I can't teach and share music with the kids, then what's the use of me being here," Barlow recalls thinking.
So, she did everything she could to stay connected with her students. She called, emailed, and dropped off meals and sheet music when protocols allowed. Most of all, she remained patient and trusted that the musical foundation poured by the students would endure. It did.
Hearing the students play their instruments after-school recently, reminds one that, as long as there are teachers like Barlow, music and hope will play forever.
Nico Colon sees himself when he looks in his students' eyes. He hears his story when listening to theirs. He feels his insecurities when they express their uncertainties. Such a connection exists between people who share similar origin stories.
Colon and many of his third-grade students were born and raised in the Harlem Heights community of Fort Myers. Colon attended Heights Elementary and the foundation's summer camp, excelled in high school, and flourished at the University of Florida.
When the opportunity arose in 2020 for Colon to — "give back to my community," — he embraced it without hesitation. Watching him relate, encourage, and guide students, reflects a big brother caring for younger siblings. His growth mindset method of teaching encourages students to be active participants in learning.
More importantly, when Colon's students explore questions, solve problems, and overcome challenges, they do so with quiet confidence and strength, on a path blazed by their teacher, the one they proudly call, Mr. Nico.