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As told by Vince Harper and Angela Horton, West40 Safe Schools teachers

“As the COVID-19 pandemic really set in in early March, things changed so rapidly. Our schools closed and we were heartbroken knowing that it was probably the last time we’d see our students for the school year.

West40 immediately started doing online remote learning. It was still meeting a lot of needs, but some students stopped connecting with us or Zooming with us to do our usual morning circle time. And as May approached, we realized that unless we did something, our kids would not receive any kind of acknowledgement that the school year was ending.

Of course, the pandemic created challenges for holding any kind of event. A group of us worked with our leaders and eventually got approval to have a socially distanced ‘parking lot party’ where kids could drive through and receive some gifts from us.

So we decided to hold this celebration over the course of two days. We wanted to elevate our students, celebrate their progress and get them ready for summer. We thought about things that kids would enjoy, activities that would keep them occupied while they were stuck indoors. We bought art kits, coloring books, puzzles, sketching supplies and STEM supplies. For one student, who’s a basketball fan, we got a mini indoor basketball hoop. With these items, we made gift baskets for each of our students. We made sure that each kid received something that made them feel like, ‘These people really understand who I am.’

On the first day of the celebration, we pulled into the school parking lot, opened our trunks and set up a big table. We told our students in advance to keep their masks on and stay in their cars.

As the first students started to drive through, we realized it would be an emotional day. Every kid was so excited. One student, who had always played it cool, suddenly turned into a little kid when he saw us. A student who had left our program before Covid drove through and popped out of his sunroof yelling, ‘I love you!’ Another student saw us and said, ‘I’m home now. This is my family.’ It was so funny to hear a teenager say that about school.

There was one particular student who had struggled mentally through Covid. We weren’t hearing from him, but had been in touch with his mom. At one point he was hospitalized. He was doing better by the time of the event, but still didn’t want to come out of his room. But his mom convinced him to come to the celebration, and as they pulled up we saw him in the passenger seat. To see him and know what he was going through, that was huge. In his gift basket, we had included three or four of his favorite books from his younger years. Watching him pop up out of the car, looking healthy and finally getting the acknowledgement he deserved—that meant everything to us.

As the pandemic continues, we’re still building relationships and helping people grow every day. What sets us apart at West40 is our attention to detail, unconditional love, family atmosphere and the sense of belonging that we try to create for our kids. It doesn’t matter where we are or what you throw at us, we’re going to figure out a way to support our students.”

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