What might have been a simple gift for some was a life-changing trip for a group of English as a Second Language (ESL) students, who were able to tour the nation’s capital earlier this year as part of a grant program that they said enriched their lives and provided them an unforgettable learning experience.
Sampson Middle School eighth-grade teacher April Lewis successfully applied for a Simple Gifts Love of Learning Grant, which provided 10 ESL students, accompanied by three chaperones, a trip to Washington D.C. and the many of the museums, monuments and landmarks they had learned about.
“We’re just so thankful to Simple Gifts that we were able to go,” Lewis said. “It was supposed to be a journey of learning so they could see what they have been studying.”
In a time of giving thanks, Lewis felt compelled to share her own gratitude for a program that positively impacted a group of her students.
The Simple Gifts Fund awards grants in order to enable teachers to provide illuminating programs and opportunities for students in the classroom, after school and throughout the summer, with the goal of inspiring the improvement of public education by engaging students. Through the grants, the Simple Gifts Fund seeks to “assist teachers who recognize the value of inquiry, who understand the power of knowledge and who appreciate the importance of inspiring excellence in their students.”
Grant awards are made three times annually, with the number of those grant awards limited by the merit of the applications and funding available. Eligible applicants may apply for school grants up to $3,000 and individual stipend grants up to $1,000.
Lewis received both, and said every dollar was stretched in order to have the optimum learning experience for those students — and they were extremely appreciative and enriched by what they were able to do, their teacher said.
Through the project, entitled “We’re off to D.C. and Beyond,” the group visited various memorials, notably the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the Washington Monument, Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House, as well as the National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, among other stops.
“We packed a lot in just a few days,” said Lewis.
She noted that the students, many who were still learning English at the time of the trip this past June, took a keen interest in the Lincoln Memorial and Petersen House as they had studied Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.
“They were really touched by the Martin Luther King Memorial,” said Lewis. And they relayed those feelings to Lewis after nights visiting both the MLK Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, saying how much the sacrifice of both men meant to them, and for young Hispanic girls and boys that can now grow up in better times. “I cried two of those nights. One of the kids said ‘that was my dream to see the Lincoln Memorial.’ I didn’t know it meant so much to them.”
Zulma Marin and Lewis’ husband, Scott, also teachers at Sampson Middle, went on the trip with Lewis and her students.
The 10 then-rising eighth grade students who went on the trip were Yanismariel Arroyo Lopez, Marilyn Lopez, Francisco Rivera, Gerald Zuniga, Alisson Gonzalez, Enrique Alvarez-Escobar, Yensy Meza, Isaura Guevara, Ivan Palencia and Cyndi Munguia.
To go to Washington D.C. as part of the Simple Gifts grant project, the students had to be ESL students and they had to receive two recommendations from their teachers. Prior to embarking, those eligible ESL students additionally had to research and make a presentation about two landmarks in D.C.
The students kept a journal while on the trip and wrote an essay when they returned.
“They wrote about how the trip changed their lives and what it meant to them,” said Lewis.
Lewis said she was blown away by the essays, which she shared. Many mentioned Lincoln and King and what their sacrifices meant to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness and equality.
“This trip enriched my life by making me appreciate what Abraham Lincoln did against slavery,” said Yanismariel Arroyo Lopez. “If he didn’t speak out about slavery, I can’t imagine what they would do to Hispanics. In my point of view, Abraham Lincoln died for us. His statue was huge, so big, like his heart, that love and care for us too.”
Francisco Rivera said he will always remember the trip he took with nine of his friends, with the trip to the Lincoln Memorial also sticking out as a highlight.
“This trip enriched my life because I learned more … about what Lincoln did for our country. Lincoln was a great man … it was so sad when we went to the Peterson House where Lincoln died after several hours,” said Rivera.
Alisson Gonzalez noted the many museums that she said “changed my way of thinking,” including the National Museum of American History that exhibited the Greensboro (N.C.) Lunch Counter, site of the famous sit-in during the Civil Rights Movement. Gonzalez said the March on Washington, which would come just a few years later, “helped us and we should be thankful.”
“If it wasn’t for them, we Hispanics would be treated worse than how blacks were treated because of our first language and our color,” she said. “Thanks to them, we have a lot of amazing friends that have different cultures.”
As happy as she felt knowing many helped shape history for the better of today’s society, she was just as sad knowing that it came at the cost of human life, using the Abraham Lincoln and his death at Petersen House as an example.
“When I entered the house I felt sad, it just touched my heart. I will never forget the feeling I felt. I will also never forget I visited the museums in Washington D.C and how that made me appreciate my life and what I have.”
Gerald Zuniga agreed.
“Washington D.C was a trip of a lifetime. (It) wasn’t just a fun experience, it was a place where you can learn and have a good time with friends,” Zuniga wrote. “The best part is that we can see what all of these important people did to our nation for the good. It felt like I was there experiencing that moment when history was changed.”
Like others, Zuniga pointed to the pieces of history involving Lincoln. The clothes Lincoln wore before he was shot, and the pillow stained with his blood, are images Zuniga said he would not forget.
“Everything seemed so realistic, and sharing that experience … is something to remember,” he said. “If you just think about it, seeing something in front of your face that was from someone important who changed history, you feel special at that moment. I will never forget sharing the experiences with my friends and the new things that I learned.”
Marilyn Lopez shared the same sentiment.
“The Washington D.C. trip was an amazing trip, not only because my friends were there, but because of how much we learned and experienced,” she wrote. “Together we visited many historical sites. One of the sites that we saw was the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.”
She described the memorial as being displayed in a way where King “comes out from between two mountain like figures,” an image that resonated with her.
“I will always remember this because to me it looked like one man from a big crowd stood up and looked to make a difference,” Lopez stated.
Lopez pointed to the Lincoln Museum and the Petersen House, where Lincoln died just hours after he was shot, as one of the most important parts of the trip. Inside is a replica model of the carriage that took him to his grave as well as John Wilkes Booth’s escape route and his journal.
“What makes this museum the most important is that it was dedicated to our president that fought for freedom,” said Lopez. “The Washington trip has enriched my knowledge and my life.”
The students are currently in the 9th grade at Clinton High School, except for Gerald, Enrique and Cyndi, who are at the Early College. Even though the trip has long since passed, and the students have now moved on to high school, it is an experience that will stay with them — and Lewis.
“It really made a difference in their lives,” Lewis said. “They didn’t just use it to go play with their friends. They really appreciated it.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.