0 Bw Girls2 Wide


December 5, 2018

Dear Supporters and Friends,

The average American 12-year-old spends between 4.5 and 6.7 hours each day in front of a screen. Countless studies debate whether this is a symptom or the cause of a deepening crisis: loneliness and isolation. Either way, the statistics are harrowing: since 2010, the number of tweens and teens reporting “feelings of exclusion” has increased by over 35%; suicide rates for middle school girls are up by an astounding 70%; fully half of sixth grade students report they have been the target of bullying in the past 30 days alone! What we see in the classroom each day confirms just how starved young people are for a sense of belonging, heartfelt human contact, and community. These are among the greatest gifts SPIRIT SERIES has to offer…

Our fourth annual end-of-year update — SPIRITED ’18 — is filled with good news: a major programming milestone in the SERIES history; more quantitative evidence of the curriculum’s success; the launch of our new professional development program, SPIRITWORKS. Your support has made these achievements possible and our hearts are filled with thanks for your ongoing generosity. The two stories of transformation and community, below, are emblematic of hundreds from the past year. We hope they shine some light on the healing power of human connection, and the vital importance of providing our kids with a chance to build bridges to one another at a critical crossroads in their lives.

Devanti was alone. A foot shorter than most of his fifth-grade peers, he would not even lift his head off the desk when first called upon to read a line from “Ballad of Sitting Bull.” So, everyone was surprised when he put his name in the casting lottery for a lead role: President Grant. Devanti was shocked when he won.

He had no friends, endlessly doodling characters from his favorite video game instead. Devanti lived with an aunt, having been removed from the care of his parents. Every day he would begin class with head on desk, refusing to read even a single line. And at least once daily he announced to the class: “I’m not doing this play!!”

The day before the performance, our classroom leader posed a key question at the heart of the Sitting Bull story: Is life fair? Then, seized the moment: “Devanti — do you think your life is fair?” The boy looked up suddenly. Every eye turned to him. His voice quavered as he answered almost in a whisper: “…No.” The class was pin-drop still. In that moment, they were with him in his pain. And Devanti was no longer alone. After class, the SERIES leader knelt down to the boy: “You’ll be great tomorrow.” And indeed he was. After his triumphant turn as President Grant, Devanti was the last student to leave the stage. He lingered. And finally looked up at the leader: “…Thank you for believing in me!”

Naomi is blind. A warm-hearted sixth-grader at an urban middle school, she was not shunned by her peers. But they kept their distance, always apart somehow, never initiating social interaction with her. Naomi was brave. And we could only imagine her isolation. Her one real relationship at school was with her aide, who was always at her side, navigating the classrooms and halls. Still, the prospect of joining the class, without the benefit of eyesight, to participate fully in the staged reading of “Buddha Walks” presented serious problems. How would Naomi follow the script, as it had never been brailled? How would she do the group tableaux with the other members of her class? Or move around on stage?

For Naomi, there was never a doubt she would overcome these obstacles. In fact, she was entirely unfazed by them. We witnessed with admiration her quiet determination to be a part of it all. And as fate would have it, Naomi had been cast in a key role, the Rishi — a wandering Hindu holy man — who enlightens Prince Siddhartha with this wisdom: “Only by losing something great can one find that which is greater!”

Soon, her aide had produced an oversized braille version of the script that Naomi showed up with each day, despite the fact that she had memorized the entire play. Aides rehearsed with her during lunch. In the final week, even classmates began to teach Naomi the tableaux that they were all doing throughout the performance, reaching out to her for the first time, describing each position as they placed her arms and body so she would blend seamlessly with the entire ensemble.

When we watched Naomi shine in full costume on performance day — led tenderly to center stage by the cast member seated next to her — we couldn’t help but feel that she was the living embodiment of the Rishi’s wisdom. Yes, long ago she had lost her sight. But, somehow in her challenging journey, she had gained something even greater…and was now able to share it with the entire class: a chance to open their hearts, celebrate her quiet strength and include her fully, at last, in their performance glory.

Your generosity has now given the SPIRIT SERIES experience to nearly 50,000 students — one child, one classroom, one school at a time. The value of your investment can now be verified by two years of compelling data that prove the program’s efficacy. And yet, as these stories attest, the greatest impact of this work is often unquantifiable. Our children need us, now more than ever. Thank you for helping them discover their shared humanity with your generous support!

Leslie & Richard Strauss

p.s. Our cohort — ages 9 to 14 — remains, in the words of Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, “…the most fruitful time to turn pessimistic children into optimistic ones.” With your gift, we can seize this precious chance to lift the spirit of America’s kids!

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