Twelve-year-old Simone Scott, a sixth grader at San Miguel School-Gary Comer Campus in Austin, is learning a lesson that can’t be taught in any book or classroom: how to give back.
On May 7, Scott and the rest of the students at the private, Catholic school at 819 N. Leamington will spend a half day working with the elderly and day care kids. They’ll also clean up their community and plant bright and cheery flowers during their school’s annual Comer Day of Service.
“I’m doing something good for our community and the ozone layer and we won’t have pollution, and it will keep our neighborhood clean,” said Scott, who also participated in the program last year picking up trash. “It makes me feel good.”
Before the school opened in 2002, the 800 block of North Leamington was plagued with drug dealers and shuttered buildings. Today, the block in the heart of Austin is quiet and cared for, and the folks at the Comer Campus like to help keep it that way.
But that’s not the only reason the students will be lending a hand to their neighbors this week.
“We’ve been the beneficiary of so much generosity that it’s important the kids are givers as well as receivers.” said Kathy Donohue, the school’s assistant principal. “They’re from a wonderful community, and they’re contributing to it being a great place.”
The late Gary Comer, the Land’s End founder who donated $1.2 million to establish the West Side school, died in 2006, and the first clean-up event was held that year in his honor. The Comer Campus brought the San Miguel model, already in place in the South Side’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, to Chicago’s West Side.
The school serves fifth through eighth graders at $75 per month tuition, although the cost to educate each student is $10,000 to $12,000 annually. Individuals and foundations subsidize the 102 students. According to Donohue, Comer wasn’t just a benefactor to the campus, but an important part of our school.
“In honor of his memory, we want our students to be prime examples of giving back to the community,” she said. “It’s the best way to honor him.”
To continue its mission to, “transform lives and neighborhoods,” the school will also hold its first Finding Solutions in Challenging Times Resource Fair on May 4. The organizers hope community members will attend. About 25 organizations and city agencies will be at the school, providing information on services including employment, mental health and education.
Denise Smalley of St. Joseph Services said the fair is an opportunity to invite people into the Comer Campus. Smalley, coordinator of family services for the outreach ministry, works out of the school and says she receives calls daily from people looking for help. She considers the fair is a “grassroots effort” to provide aid and information.
“I hope a lot of families and community members come,” said Smalley, whose organization serves at-risk families. “We’re going to open the doors, and let the community take advantage of these resources.
Smalley and co-workers, Jon Ecker and Bradly Johnson, started the effort-it eventually snowballed into a bigger event than she imagined.
“It’s really needed in Austin,’ she said. “People don’t know how to tap into these resources. They don’t think they exist.”
Between the resource fair and the day of service, it’s going to be a busy week of reaching out to the community for staff and students. Alexus Williams, an 11-year-old sixth grader at the school, said helping out in the neighborhood makes her feel good. She also participated last year cleaning up garbage in the neighborhood.
“I accomplished something and want to make a change in the world to help out,” Williams said.