Today’s “Meet Our Leadership” profile is of Communities In Schools of Greater New Orleans President Sara Massey. Since moving to New Orleans shortly after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Massey has become passionate about making sure every student in the area is properly equipped with school supplies. This blog post was previously featured on Living Lutheran.
Responding to a call
By 2006, she and her husband, Andy, had built a comfortable life for their family, so when Andy was offered a job in the athletic department at Tulane University in New Orleans just months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, Sara wasn’t eager to make the move.
Sara had stayed in Boone while Andy made the trip to New Orleans for the interview. He happened to be interviewing while their daughter, Meredith, was at the 2006 ELCA Youth Gathering in San Antonio — the theme of which was “Cruzando” or “crossing over” in Spanish.
“I didn’t want to be gone when Meredith returned from what would be an emotional high,” Sara says. “When she got back, she immediately wanted to know where Dad was.”
Sara put her on the phone with Andy, and he explained that the he might be taking a job in New Orleans. “When she hung up, she said ‘Well, Mom, I just got back from Cruzando which is Spanish for crossing over. They told us as teenagers we are preparing to cross over into a [new] area of our lives. We need to ‘cross over’ with confidence, knowing we have God’s grace and God’s blessing. I guess this is my Cruzando.’”
Sara still gets emotional when she remembers her daughter’s reaction. “Here we are getting ready to pick her up from her perfect little world to move her to the worst natural disaster in the history of this country,” Sara says. “That’s when I knew we were basically responding to a call.”
Six years and two Gatherings later, the family is still in New Orleans. Now Sara works for Communities In Schools of Greater New Orleans, an organization dedicated to helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.
When the 2009 ELCA Youth Gathering was held in New Orleans — and each of the 35,000 young people in attendance dedicated an entire day of their visit to service projects — Sara jumped at the opportunity to meet with organizers.
“I was one of the early people they talked to,” says Sara. “They said, ‘Sara, what can we do to help your organization?’”
She pitched a project to collect school supplies for kids in New Orleans. At the 2006 San Antonio Gathering, congregations had been encouraged to bring school supplies with them. This, though, would be different. Sara remembers the meeting well.
“We were sitting in the conference room, and Peggy [Hahn, one of the organizers of the Gathering] said, “We’re going to ship you enough school supplies so that you can give kits to every kid in kindergarten through third grade.” Sara was flabbergasted.
“That’s 13,550 school kids,” she replied to Peggy.
“Yeah,” Peggy said.
Feeling the impact
The school supply kits met an urgent need in the community, and the project was so successful, that it was repeated at the 2012 Gathering.
This time Sara oversaw the assembly of 15,000 kits for grades four and five in both Orleans and Jefferson parishes. They also received healthy snack kits provided and packed by ELCA youth and helped hand out books as part of the Gathering’s initiative to collect and distribute 1 million books to New Orleans schoolchildren.
And even though the 2012 Gathering has come and gone, Sara is still seeing the impact. The Gathering donated all of the items they had purchased for the Practice Peacemaking area of the Gathering — the part of the event housed in the convention center where kids could learn about social issues or just hang out and play games — to Communities In Schools. The donation included everything from futons, basketball hoops and artwork to school supplies, paper and even eight wheelchairs.
Sara has put together a program that is distributing these supplies to local teachers and classrooms. And she is beginning to get feedback on how the donations are impacting people’s lives.
“I received envelopes from two schools that contained the sweetest little letters from fourth-graders,” says Sara.
“In several of the letters,” she says, “the kids said my mom couldn’t buy me pencils, and now I have a pencil.” Other letters mentioned never having had color pencils before receiving their school supply kits. Another ended with the words, “I love you.”
Overall, Sara says that the ELCA Youth Gatherings play a role in people’s lives that really can’t be measured. “The impact that it has on these young people, and the communities where it goes is priceless,” Sara says. “Isn’t that what we as a church should be about?”