Turning despair into hope — one bit at a time

Illustration by Forest Byrd

One of our all-time favorite stories is about stone soup. Early in the 19th Century, the Brothers Grimm recorded the folk tale about soldiers returning to a starving village. No one was willing to share his meager supplies of food. The villagers told the soldiers, as they had been telling each other, they had no food.

One might gnaw secretly on a bit of turnip or another on a hard morsel of meat. But there was little nourishment to be had in such eating — and no joy.

The soldiers proceeded to put a large stone in a pot over a fire in the center of the village. People were curious and gathered around. The soldiers said they were making stone soup, which would be delicious; it just needed a little cabbage to improve its flavor. Lo and behold, a head of cabbage appeared. The woman donating didn’t mind parting with just a little bit to help out.

Another villager donated a bunch of carrots. Still another contributed a bit of meat. And so it went. Each could give a little.

The end result was a delicious soup that would nourish the entire community.

The story, in different forms, is told in places around the world. In the Chinese version, monks rely first on a child and then the others in town to contribute food that feeds a community. In Scandinavia, a tramp looking for food makes nail soup. In Eastern Europe, it’s ax soup.

But the message is always the same.  Something that appears insurmountable is solved when each gives a little. 

Modern versions of the story have played out this spring in two of our elementary schools, authored by the Parent Teacher Association.

On the night of the school budget vote, as we waited with board candidates and their supporters for election results, a mother who is active in the Guilderland Elementary PTA told us about a remarkable drive going on at her school. As we waited for news on the district’s $84 million budget vote — it passed by a landslide — she spoke of children who lacked the most basic school supplies. She sounded passionate as she talked about Pennies for Peace.

It began with one man’s failed attempt to climb the world’s second-highest mountain, Pakistan’s K2. Fifteen years ago, Greg Mortenson was confused and worn out as he had been separated from his climbing group; without food or water, he came upon a poor Pakistani village where, unlike in the tale of stone soup, the villagers cared for him and nursed him back to health. His story is recorded in the bestseller, Three Cups of Tea.

Mortenson vowed he would return to build a school for the village’s children. They had no school and no teacher. His first attempts to raise money were largely unsuccessful but the tide turned after schoolchildren from River Falls, Wisconsin donated over $600 in pennies, inspiring others. Since then, Mortenson has built over 60 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

His idea is to fight terrorism with books, not bombs. The subtitle of his book is “One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time.”

The feeling of that phrase was picked up by those in the Guilderland PTA-sponsored drive. Their idea was that children in this prosperous American suburb would help Third World children, one penny at a time. The children “truly learned the power of a penny, a virtually worthless coin in our culture,” Jacqueline Guidarelli-Wu wrote us last week. 

Mark Gonnelly, the second-grade teacher who coordinated the drive, said children had opened their piggy banks to make donations. “They are aware that their donations are going to help other children who cannot afford basic supplies for school,” he said. “And, because they know they are helping other children in need, their enthusiasm has been amazing.”

The drive raised almost $1,400 — all in pennies.

We remember in our own childhood collecting pennies for UNICEF (the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund). This was in an era when kids who did not clean their plates were told about children who were starving on the other side of the world. Seeing the pictures of poor children — their bellies distended from starvation, their eyes vacant with hunger — was unbearable. Collecting the pennies and giving our own made us feel like we were doing something to help.

A similar sentiment buoyed the children at Pine Bush Elementary School this past week. The second-graders in Laurie Haecker’s and Heather Thomas’s classes sold lemonade to raise money to fight childhood cancer.

”Alex’s Lemonade Stand is a legacy left by a little girl named Alexandra Scott,” Haecker told us. “She was diagnosed with cancer. At the age of 4, she had a lemonade stand to raise money to help her doctors....She died when she was 8 years old...My kids felt inspired by her story.”

Alex Scott’s attitude embodied the adage: If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. At a tender age, she was able to turn a bitter experience into something sweet, and inspire many others to follow her example.

In one day, the Pine Bush second-graders raised $700 selling lemonade at stands in their school. Since the PTA paid for the supplies, all of the money will go to the not-for-profit group, Alex’s Lemonade Stand. Its byword is “no donation is too small” and its slogan is “fighting childhood cancer, one cup at a time.”

Since 2004, the year Alex Scott died, over 8,000 Alex’s Lemonade Stands have been set up across America. Pine Bush children are holding their own at home. “One girl got over $100 over the weekend,” said Haecker.

She said the children had learned about everything from economics to advertising doing the project. “But the biggest thing is it teaches kids to have empathy,” she said.

Our schools these days are required to spend a lot of their time and energy and resources to meet state and federal standards. Tests measure skills in science and language, in math and history — and the curricula follows.

Mortenson understood that the children in the breeding ground of the Taliban — girls as well as boys — need to be taught to reason and think for themselves. Our children also need to be taught about kindness and caring. The projects at the Guilderland and Pine Bush elementary schools have done just that.

It’s easy for children to feel dwarfed and helpless by forces beyond their control. 

“Our kids know people who have had cancer,” said Haecker. “They felt really good about doing something. They always talked about ‘helping Alex’ but it was really all kids.”

As with the stone soup, little bits can make a big difference if everyone contributes something.  One cup at a time. One penny at a time. One school at a time.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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