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One More Chance for Snowmen:

A Heartfelt Letter from a Soldier to His Daughters

 

One month before leaving his home in New York to serve with a special operations unit in Iraq, thirty-seven-year-old Captain Zoltan Krompecher wrote the following letter to his two little girls, Leah, age four, and Annie, age two. Krompecher wrote the letter to his daughters in the event that he did not return home alive, expressing his regret that he did not spend more time with them before he left.

 

An excerpt of this letter is read aloud in Episode 4 of the Freedom Writers Podcast. See below to view photos of Krompecher and his family, and to read the full text of the letter.

 

Dear Leah and Annie,

 

My precious little girls. I write this letter to you because soon I will leave for Iraq. Your mommy and I just tucked you both into bed, read your books, and said our prayers together. I’ve been watching the news and am worried that there could be the off-chance that I might never get to watch you board the school bus for the first time, place a Band Aid on a scraped knee, or walk you down the aisle of your wedding. So if you are reading this years from now, I want you to know how very much your daddy loved you and that I am also watching over you and protecting you. You are my everything, and now I must say goodbye to you. I cannot express adequately how much you mean to me, but I will try.

 

While I was your father, I was not always a good daddy. I failed in balancing the life of a soldier with the awesome responsibility of being a daddy. Even now I talk about, almost brag, to my fellow soldiers about going over— many of them are not deploying—but I suppose I do this to convince myself that I’ll be fine and to hide my fear and worry about what could happen. I am a soldier, and going to war is something few American soldiers, at least those I know, want to miss. Fighting our nation’s war is what we train, sweat, and prepare for our whole careers.

 

Still, I am worried. When I was a young, single Green Beret, I was so full of bravado that little would faze me. But now, I have you two, my little princesses, and your brother and mother to think of. I don’t want this to be our last goodbye, but I realize thousands of others have left their families to go to the sound of the guns: I am going too, and I am proud of the men (fine men who give much of themselves) I’ll be serving with over there, but I am scared about not coming home alive. I worry that the next time you see me will be when you stand in front of my coffin wearing your Sunday best to say goodbye to a daddy you hardly knew. I’m scared, but I’m a soldier.... I can’t make sense of it either.

 

Leah, when you were two, we went sledding for the first time, just the two of us—daddy and daughter—out enjoying the snow. After each ride down the hill, I would tow you back up while you sat on the sled. During one of our treks up, I overheard you crying and looked back to see that one of your snow boots had fallen off at the bottom of the hill. I picked you up, placed your foot in my jacket and headed down the hill to retrieve the missing boot. Little did I know that you would forever remember that incident as a pleasurable one because it was a moment in which we bonded. Now, any mention of snow and you respond happily with, “Daddy, remember when we went sledding and my boot ‘felled’ off?” quickly following with, “Daddy, when can we go sledding again?” That was two years ago, and you still remember it as if it were yesterday.

 

One night during this past December, I read you girls The Snowy Day before bedtime. The next morning revealed three inches of fresh powder. That morning you greeted me with the plea, “Daddy, can we go outside and play like Peter did in his book?” Sadly, I replied that I had to get to work but maybe we could build a snowman after I returned home. Unfortunately, it was so dark by the time I returned from work that there was no time for snowmen, or anything else.

 

Every morning, I walked outside to kick the icicles hanging off my jeep before driving to work through the slush-covered roads. In January, it snowed again, and you (Leah) came running up to me with your pull-on boots on the wrong feet, wearing an unzipped jacket and mittens. At the same time you, Annie, pointed excitedly at the blanket of snow that covered our backyard. Both of you smiled eagerly in hopes of playing outside. Sadly, I felt that I had no time to play games in the snow. I had received orders for Iraq and was preparing for war. Eventually, you both stopped asking me to play in the snow and would instead sit quietly in your reading chairs while I made important phone calls and dealt with other business.

 

During one of the unseasonably warm days we had just weeks ago, I pulled up in our driveway and looked out the car window just in time to witness you (Leah) attempting to play kickball with the neighborhood children while Annie looked on from your picnic table in our front yard. In the middle of the field was another father from across the street. He moved towards you (Leah) and gently rolled the ball as you stood uncertainly at home plate. You responded with a kick and laughed hysterically while running the bases. Annie clapped and cheered you on.

 

Then “it” hit me. Sitting in my car wearing my uniform, the thought of how I had wasted enjoying so many precious moments with my little darlings slammed into me. I realized then that that should be me out on that plate. That should be me guiding my daughter to first base and then deliberately miss tagging her out as you rounded third for a homerun. That should be me enjoying a tea party with my daughter on her plastic picnic table. I suddenly understood how I should have taken you both sledding to see if perhaps we could make it down a hill without a boot falling off. Later that week, I saw you (Leah) ride your bike by yourself for the very first time. I asked mommy who had fastened your bicycle helmet and helped you move the bike to the front of the house. Mommy responded that you had found your helmet, dragged your bike to the front of the house, and proceeded to ride (with no one walking at your side). I knew then that you were both growing up and would not always need me.

 

When I was stationed in Georgia, my friend SFC (Ret) James Smith sent me an e-mail that ended with the quotation, “To the world I am an individual. To an individual, I am the world.” Unfortunately, I never understood that line until recently receiving orders for this deployment.

 

Last night, as I was putting you both to bed, Leah looked up at me and said, “Daddy, I have tears in my eyes because you will be leaving.” Annie, you must have realized something was wrong because you started crying, too. With that statement, I resolved to take SFC Smith’s advice to heart and decided to “be the world” to you all. Years from now, I do not want to be the guy who sits alone sifting through a box of pictures trying to recapture fading memories because he left his children clinging to unfulfilled promises.

 

April has arrived, and there is little evidence of the long winter. I have put the sled away until next year. Winter is over, and I leave for Iraq next month. You are growing. All I can hope for is that it will snow just one more time.

 

Love,

Your Daddy

 

Ten days after he wrote this letter, it snowed again, and Zoltan Krompecher and his daughters spent the afternoon sledding and drinking hot chocolate. Krompecher went off to serve in Iraq, and fortunately, he came back alive and well to his wife, Tina, and their children.

 

-- From OPERATION HOMECOMING: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families(Random House), edited by Andrew Carroll. Reprinted with permission.

"We're All the Same Right Now":

 

A Letter from a 9/11 Survivor

 

 

 

 

On September 11, 2001, twenty-two-year-old Anna Miller was attending a business seminar in New York City when she and her co-workers  became eyewitnesses to—and almost victims of—one of the most catastrophic attacks in United States history. She wrote a ten-page handwritten letter to her family and friends after returning home to North Carolina.

 

An excerpt of this letter is read aloud in Episode 4 of the Freedom Writers Podcast. See below to read more of Miller's letter.

 

First, let me say that I would not be making it through this trauma without all of the incredible support and love I have felt poured onto me. I realize this letter is arriving to you all almost a month late, but it has taken me time — time to express my thoughts — and sometimes I would start to write and just get too emotional. So I apologize — but here it is…

 

My hotel room was on the 30th floor, and therefore, waiting on the elevator seemed like an eternity. I walked to the window and looked at this beautiful building next door that was having all of this construction and renovations done to it.

 

We started our meeting just after 8:30 a.m. My co-worker Paige and I were sitting in the back of the room and she was telling me how we had to go eat at the Windows on the World restaurant. At this point, I heard a really loud crashing sound. I remember thinking to myself  “Oh gosh — some of the construction from the building next door has fallen.” Bob, my other co-worker who was instructing the class at the time, said the same thing, and we continued on with business.

 

Because we were on the 3rd floor we couldn’t see what had really happened. There was a gap in the curtains, and I couldn’t help but peering out. I saw people beginning to gather on the street corner and noticed that they were all looking and pointing up. Bob was having to raise his voice because all you could hear were sirens.

 

I tried to motion to Bob that something was definitely going on out there, and a man in our class said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but can we stop for a second and see what’s going on?” Just as I got to the window, someone screamed, and I looked up to see a commercial airliner swerving around a building in front of us — and disappear. Then another BOOM! and our building shook.

As I was looking outside, I turned to Brian and said “I really think that’s blood and flesh — in the street.” An emergency intercom system came on and said that the New York Police Department was evacuating the building.

 

We got to a back exit and a Marriott worker, who obviously had not heard the NYPD announcement said: “You musn’t go out there — it’s terrible, you don’t want to see what’s in the streets.” Someone yelled that we had been told to evacuate, and he commanded that we all keep our heads up, and “Don’t look at what’s in the streets and just run.” We held hands and ran with the screaming masses of panicked people. I noticed though that everyone kept turning around and looking up — we all did — and that’s when I saw both World Trade Center buildings above me in flames — and somebody jump.

 

I didn’t look back again until we got to the point where we couldn’t run any further. It was so petrifying to be in the middle of it and people were screaming: “America’s under attack” and “We’ve gone to war.”

 

No one could get a cell phone to work. But I was bound and determined to get through to someone. I was shaking so badly I could barely dial the numbers. Finally I was able to get through to my Dad and the sound of his voice, while it was exactly what I wanted to hear, made me all the more afraid. Afraid it was the last time.

 

Just as I hung up the phone, I watched the first building fall. There was so much commotion, screams, noise, confusion. The air around us was getting darker and massive herds of people starting from this black wall that was quickly approaching — and I remember thinking “This is it. This will kill us all.”

 

Five of us got down and put our faces to the ground and the men covered us with their jackets and shirts. We stayed in that huddle for I don’t know how long — what seems like forever, until finally we realized that people had begun to move around. I looked at all of us with gray hair, bloodied clothes, masks on our faces — and I just recall thinking: Everyone looks the same, and we’re all going through the same thing — Each of us — we’re all the same right now.

 

I think we all just felt the preciousness of life, the importance of expressing of love, and to be with those who we care about.

 

It’s weird now the way that, every time I hear a plane fly overhead, I stop and feel a quick jolt of fear. Or every time I hear a siren, it triggers a flashback for me. But I realize now that it will take time. I appreciate so very much the constant outreaching of support I have felt. 

 

My Love to each of you — Anna

 

- From BEHIND THE LINES: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters -- and One Man's Search to Find Them (Scribner), edited by Andrew Carroll. Reprinted with permission.

 

 

You've seen the movie. You've read the book. Now listen to the podcast!
 
Hosted by renowned educator Erin Gruwell, the Freedom Writers Podcast features thought-provoking conversations with Ms. G's original students from Room 203, "Freedom Writer Teachers," and special guest speakers such as original Freedom Riders Jim Zwerg and John Lewis, Dr. Terrence Roberts of the Little Rock Nine, and former Congressman Patrick Kennedy. 
 
Whether you're an educator, a parent, a mentor, or a student, the podcast's purpose is to engage, enlighten, and empower you to make a difference. In honor of the 20th Anniversary of the Freedom Writers graduation from Wilson High School, discover the humanity in history and the power of storytelling to change the world.
 
More voices. More stories. Only on the Freedom Writers Podcast.
 
 

 

Wednesday, 14 December 2016 19:38

Give Hope for the Holidays

 
 
This December, the Freedom Writers Foundation humbly asks that you donate to help us bring Hope for the Holidays to teenagers in juvenile halls. 

Give Hope for the Holidays.

For many of us, the holidays are filled with hope and happiness, and the love and laughter of friends and family.  Unfortunately for others, the holidays can be quite lonely and dark.  To help shed light on the darkness, the Freedom Writers humbly ask our beloved brethren to help us bring hope for the holidays to teens who are incarcerated at Christmas.  Through generous donations from our Freedom Writer family, each Christmas Eve, Erin Gruwell and a passionate Freedom Writer Teacher who works with vulnerable youth, hand deliver books to teens who are behind bars.  With the gift of a personalized copy of “The Freedom Writer Diary,” our visit reassures these teens that just because they did something bad, it doesn’t mean they are a bad person.  Because of your belief in our cause and generous donation, we share sentiments of success, give warm hugs, and have a celebratory “Toast for Change.” May our visit inspire hope for the hopeless!

Every year, Erin visits a juvenile hall during the holidays to bring hope to teenagers who have lost faith in themselves. This year, we’re asking for your help!  

This summer, the Freedom Writers Foundation had the opportunity to welcome two extraordinary educators who work with incarcerated youth into our ever expanding Freedom Writer Teacher family.  Ben Annis and Dave Gideon have devoted their teaching careers to helping incarcerated youth strive for success, and join the ranks of many talented Freedom Writer Teachers who work with incarcerated youth.  Recently, Erin Gruwell traveled to their facilities in Cromwell and Crittenden, Kentucky to meet their struggling students to provide a message of hope and empowerment.  The young men, who ranged in age from 13-18, read excerpts from “The Freedom Writers Diary,” played the Line Game with her and made their own touching “Toast for Change”. The most poignant part of the visit was when the teens volunteered to read aloud from their own harrowing journals and share their personal stories.

The experiences these residents shared are hauntingly similar to experiences many of the original Freedom Writers endured.  Through sharing stories of being called “stupid” or a “failure” by someone they love, or heart wrenching stories of mental, physical and sexual abuse, Erin shared anecdotes of her own students.  Erin spoke to the youth about overcoming adversity, setting goals for the future and the importance of getting their high school diploma despite their current circumstances.

After returning back to California, Erin received a letter from one of the residents. In it he says, “My lawyer told me I was going to get out on March 14th, but he was wrong… I wanted to be out before my birthday. I felt like quitting everything, and on top of that, two days after my birthday my sister died. I felt hopeless… then you [Erin Gruwell] came and gave me hope. Now I am not only on track to complete my high school credits, but I want to go to college and be successful… you are a blessing!”

Your donation, this holiday season, will allow us to provide each teen with a personal copy of The Freedom Writers Diary – a collection of stories by students who faced and overcame some of the same obstacles as teens in juvenile halls.
This Christmas Eve, Erin will visit the San Diego Juvenile Hall, which she has been visiting for over a decade. On that special day, she will be joined by Freedom Writer Teacher, Danny Ybarra, where they will hand deliver signed copies of “The Freedom Writers Diary” to vulnerable teens, many of whom are mirror images of the original Freedom Writers.  For some, “The Freedom Writers Diary” will be the first book they’ve ever owned, and perhaps, the only Christmas gift they will receive this year.  She will spend Christmas Eve sharing stories, writing wrongs, and engaging in an emotional “Toast for Change.” With your help this holiday, may hope spring eternal…
CLICK HERE TO DONATE TODAY

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P.O. Box 41505, Long Beach, CA 90853 

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Friday, 13 May 2016 22:31

Precious Symonette

Freedom Writer Teacher Precious Symonette’s name is called, and immediately the whole room erupts into applause. Ms. Symonette doesn’t even hear that she’s the winner of the Francisco R. Walker Teacher of the Year!

As a beloved teacher at Norland High School in Florida, Symonette has been able to touch the lives of many inner-city students through her passion for writing. Like the Freedom Writers, many of Symonette’s students are disadvantaged, but far from unteachable. She has been able to mold these young minds into strong, educated powerhouses that are transforming their lives through writing.

 

“I often tell them that HURT PEOPLE, HURT PEOPLE!” said Symonette. “I don't want my students to grow up being hurt, angry, or enraged, so, I help them to ‘write it all out’ and discuss it in a free space.”

 

A quick video search on YouTube will give you access to Ms. Symonette’s classroom. “I try to make it feel like a home away from home” said Symonette. “I constantly burn candles, play music, and bring in snacks.”

 

Every day, the students passionately recite a student pledge. “The student pledge is something that I wrote as a way to help my students to change their perceptions toward themselves and the community,” said Symonette. “It helps to motivate, inspire, and empower them, especially on their tough days.”

 

It is evident in their delivery that she has coached her students to have a lot of confidence, passion, and excellent speaking skills. Students are able to take a topic and creatively voice their opinions about today’s tough issues such as racism, violence and poverty. “I actively create lessons that reinforce the idea that there is strength in diversity,” Symonette adds. “I force my students to learn about themselves so that they can learn to love themselves. If they truly learn to love themselves, then they are capable of truly loving others, regardless of race.”

 

Symonette’s classroom has become a close-knit community where each student supports each other and pushes one another to become a better writer. As a result, many of her students have improved academically and have been able to get on track to graduation. Like Erin Gruwell, Symonette has been able to teach some of her students for their entire high school career, and her senior Freedom Writers will be able to attend college. 

 

Symonette has always been a winner. With an impressive resume and extensive classroom experience, it is no wonder she has been teacher of the year at Norland High School twice before. But now she’s creating buzz on a larger scale by winning her county’s biggest honor, the Francisco R. Walker Teacher of the Year.

 

Symonette has taught Freedom Writers ideals since 2010 when she learned one of her students was cutting themselves. In an effort to find ways to support her students more, she found “The Freedom Writers Diary.” The Freedom Writers Teacher Institute was clearly the next step. With her school unable to provide the funds, she went out and raised money on her own through speaking engagements with three different organizations.

 

“One of the many things that I value the most about the Freedom Writers Foundation is having the opportunity to collaborate with fellow educators around the world and having the opportunity of learning from master teachers, like Erin,” said Symonette.

 

Everyone at the Freedom Writers Foundation is proud to have amazing Freedom Writer Teachers, like Precious Symonette, showing the world that every student can learn and become passionate about their education despite the many obstacles students may face. It’s always humbling to know even a seasoned teacher like Symonette found the Freedom Writers Teacher Institute to be of great value.

 

 

 

Friday, 13 May 2016 22:31

The Promise of the Promised Land

 

I recently returned from the Middle East, and I feel compelled to share. My trip to Israel and the West Bank was inspiring and eye-opening. I did over 20 events in Israel on behalf of the U.S. Embassy and 7 events for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank on behalf of the U.S. ‎Consulate General. All told, I worked in over a dozen cities, addressed audiences of thousands and hugged hundreds. I will never forget the faces, nor the stories they shared.

I was fortunate to present workshops at major universities in the region, engage in difficult discussions with thought leaders, motivate high school students, ask and answers complex questions with NGO's and banter with both Israelis and Palestinians--many of whom are talented teachers, intellectually curious students and passionate people who are hungry for peace. It is possible.

Although it is a complicated and complex region, I remain realistic, resolute and oh, so optimistic.

After working with the diplomats, consulates, cultural attachés, and educators of every ilk, I am committed to modeling what the Freedom Writers were able to accomplish through education. I was able to show our documentary "Freedom Writers: Stories from an Undeclared War" to every audience (translated into both Arabic and Hebrew)--and then have the privilege to listen to their narratives, learn about disparate stories, and validate their truth. Then, and only then, would they let me in, allow me to bear witness, to cry, to feel, to hug, and to hope! The seeds of peace were planted in classrooms and university auditoriums--and now, may empathy, compassion and acceptance begin to grow.


My trip made me nostalgic, for I found similarities in the region, with my first foray into Long Beach after the Rodney King Riots. Both communities had been plagued with misunderstandings and gross stereotypes. In both scenarios, people were anxious for the world to take notice of their plight and humanize their existence. My trip abroad gave me a glimpse of a bigger story nestled deep in these faraway lands, and how it is imperative that people play a part in their own narrative about their own home in order to fight against biases and bigotry.

 

To foster an open dialogue with diverse audiences throughout Israel, we played the "Line Game" and even did our signature "Toast For Change!"

 

Israeli students in Haifa, Israel playing the Line Game

 

To be able to do workshops in the West Bank (in contentious cities like Nablus, Ramallah, Abu Dis--along with a digital video conference with educators in Gaza) I had to have a security debrief--with code words, potential meeting sites and catastrophe drills. Truth be told, I was scared. To travel the Palestinian region, I had a four car motorcade, a Palestinian Police escort and two roaming Collateral-Assault-Teams (CAT) performing armed coverage. I was assigned 13 armed security officers, rode through check-points in a bullet proof SUV, and at one point, my leg was actually touching a machine gun as we navigated the winding roads. Initially, it was a deja vu moment, similar to the scenario of walking into Room 203 for the first time and meeting the Freedom Writers. And yet...the people I did workshops with were beautiful and brilliant.

 

I had the privilege of speaking to college professors and educators in Gaza via a video conference at the American House in Ramallah. (Gaza was deemed too much of a security risk at the moment for me to travel to with the U.S. Consulate.) Like many of the educators I interacted with in Israel, these particular Palestinians repeated the sentiment that they would like to be seen for who they are, and not who they pray to. One professor begged me that when I reflect upon our time together that I do not speak of him "as a Palestinian from Gaza," but instead, "please refer to me as a human being." And I will honor his request--because I saw humanity--everywhere I went, and with every person I met, on both sides of the wall that separated them. In the same spirit my students learned from Anne Frank, that "in spite of everything, I truly believe that people are good at heart," that sentiment is what I want to remember--the musing of Anne--that there was and is so much goodness.

At one event at Al Quds University in Abu Dis, a young Palestinian student stood up to comment. She reminded me of the feisty Freedom Writer, Maria. This young college student desperately wanted me to know that the Freedom Writers story inspired her and that she had great aspirations for herself and her community. She admitted she had seen the film, “Freedom Writers,” over twenty times, and could recite every line of dialogue. She said the Freedom Writers inspired her, and now she has aspirations of being the first female president of Palestine someday. In addition, she requested that the audiences abroad not jump to conclusions about her and her community. Regardless of where she is from or what she believes, she knows that education can change the world.

My extensive trip was organized by Michael Bandler from the U.S. State Department in Washington DC. While Bandler and I have worked together for nearly a decade orchestrating workshops with Embassies and Consulates abroad in England, France, Scotland, The Netherlands, Taiwan, and even a video conference in Russia, this comprehensive tour to the Middle East allowed the Freedom Writer message to penetrate deep and wide. I may have ventured there as a teacher, but humbly, I returned as a student. The lessons I learned from this complex region were not political, but rather a celebration of diversity and the dispelling of stereotypes. In fact, it was so impactful that I have been asked to come back--by both the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and the Consulate General in Jerusalem. At my urging, Ambassador Dan Shapiro and I did a pinky swear to seal the deal, which Freedom Writers consider a binding contract. So even though my trip has ended, perhaps now, the real work will begin. Sometime, in the near future, the Freedom Writers Foundation would like to bring seemingly different educators from this region to Long Beach, California to learn the lessons from Room 203 and the original Freedom Writers at our Teacher Training Institutes. This inclusive Institute, like all others, could act as a neutral, safe space for open discussion, understanding, and idealy, acceptance. Together, we can plant more seeds and shatter more stereotypes.



For more press and footage of Erin’s trip to Israel, click on the following links:

Some colorful photos from my trip from the U.S. Embassy:   https://flic.kr/s/aHskqv31pT

Below is a link for a news shows for "National Teacher Appreciation Day" in Israel. https://youtu.be/3WnJGZym1W4

 

 

 

The smell of marijuana greets me at the door, followed closely by a disheveled woman. She asks what I want, and I tell her that I have come for the girls. She calls to them: “The lady is here.” The girls dart to the door, excited and expectant, each asking what the plans are for the evening and what they will eat.

In this neighborhood grown men run around playing with toy guns only weeks after a neighborhood teen was shot to death on his front porch. In this neighborhood eight- and nine-year old girls discuss rape in the way other girls might discuss the latest episode of Hannah Montana. I know of an alcoholic grandmother who has custody of her thirteen-year-old granddaughter. Here, drugs are rampant. The apartment complex grounds are littered with “Little Hugs” bottles and cigarette butts.

How does hope emerge from such a place? It comes with a field trip to a local college. It comes from meeting a woman who is vice-mayor. It comes from witnessing a performance of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. It comes when the girls do community service, perform for elderly residents at a nursing home, or march proudly in a college homecoming parade.

I am often asked why I meet with the girls one day a week after working full-time with middle school students. I was a little girl once, I reply. There were women who gave my life meaning and who inspired me: my grandmother and mother, who believed in the power of books and reading though neither had a formal education; the teachers in my segregated public schools who valued me as a learner and believed, even in those tough times, that “education is the great equalizer”; the Sunday school teachers and ladies of the community who reinforced behaviors taught at home and at school.

The wonder that these girls express at things that I take for granted constantly amazes me. I am reminded of the Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and am convinced that these girls will go places that they never imagined for themselves. I am thrilled to encourage and inspire them to go to the “places they will go.”

When Ferial Pearson first attended the Freedom Writers Institute (FWI) in the summer of 2010, it was immediately clear what an incredible teacher she was. Her passion for education and her students came out every time she spoke about her job. Some say that teaching is not a career, but a calling. We believe that this amazing woman has definitely found her calling in the classroom.

The same year Pearson attended the FWI, she was awarded with the National Education Association Award while at Omaha South High School in Nebraska. Since then, Pearson has continued to make a difference in the lives of her students. She worked prominently in her school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), giving students who felt marginalized a chance to be heard. As a result, of her work with LGBT+ students, Pearson was named the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s Educator of the Year. In her acceptance speech, she discussed how a young man came to her school because of the GSA and found acceptance after years of suffering greatly from depression.

Pearson’s accomplishments are continuing to mount this year. Earlier this year, she had the honor of attending an event with the Secretary of the United States Department of Education, Arne Duncan. Pearson spoke to influential members of educational society about how to create safe spaces in classrooms. You can read about how she taught her students the importance of small acts of kindness in her blog post that appeared on the front page of the US Department of Education’s website.

If that wasn’t enough, Pearson is also one of 2016’s recipients of The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award. She was nominated by a young woman who has helped her receive a previous accolade as well.

We are honored to acknowledge such an impactful Freedom Writer Teacher. She is someone who witnessed strength in the women around her: her grandmother and mother, teachers, and friends. She has emulated their intelligence and talents to become the motivating force in her students’ and children’s lives.

Wednesday, 06 April 2016 08:56

Teacher of Hope

Last December, Erin Gruwell visited the Worsely School at the Fresno Juvenile Campus for the holidays. The event was orchestrated by Bill Feaver, who was in the very first group of Freedom Writer Teachers in 2006. Bill’s facility includes kids from 13-18 years of age who are typically held for six months or less.

During Erin’s visit, she spoke to three classes of boys and girls. A whole class was designated for students with substance abuse problems. She spoke to the kids as individuals and listened to them discuss their lives and the struggles they faced. On their way out, Gruwell gave each student a hug, a kind gesture rarely observed at juvenile facilities.

Bill has used the Freedom Writers Methodology and curriculum in his classes at the juvenile hall for nearly ten years and realizes the significance of bringing literacy to life. He has conducted many video chats with original Freedom Writers that have inspired his students who come from varied backgrounds. The visit from Erin was extremely powerful, according to Bill. “Erin is a teacher of hope,” he explained. “Hope is important for these students. They need it just to survive.”

Wednesday, 06 April 2016 08:43

Breaking the Cycle

Katie Johnson was a teenager who ended up in the juvenile hall that Erin will be visiting in San Diego on Christmas Eve. Katie is an example of how positive reinforcement and second chances can change students' trajectories and how they see themselves. Below is her story of success. 

Katie Johnson was arrested in 2010 after she took 13 Xanax at 10:30 in the morning and attempted to drive. She was only 15 years old. This was not the first time Katie’s family was exposed to her addiction, but this time it landed her in San Diego Juvenile Hall.

Being in juvenile hall was the first time Katie was clean of narcotics since she was nine years old. At a very young age, Katie felt pressure from her family because she was the oldest sibling and expected to help with more responsibilities than the average elementary school student. So when she found her mother’s oxytocin at nine, she used the pills to help cope with her situation. By eleven, Katie had moved onto her aunt’s methamphetamines and found herself with a serious addiction that her family didn’t discover for years. They tried to put her in an in-patient rehab facility, but she continued using.

The driving-while-under-the-influence day was the last time Katie used. She was forced to get sober in juvenile hall and has stayed clean ever since. The public defender for Katie’s case was Freedom Writer Teacher Daniel Ybarra. Daniel does not have a classroom like most Freedom Writer Teachers. He has chosen instead to make his courtroom the classroom and goes there everyday to change students' lives.  

Daniel used to be a bodyguard for Cesar Chavez who encouraged him to study law at Harvard. Upon graduation, he decided to become a defense attorney. He was assigned to the juvenile deliquency department where he encountered kids who he realized had more potential than what was in their files. He created a program that encouraged kids to stay on a positive path with the goal of getting to travel the world.

After her release, Katie was invited by Daniel to go to Europe in 2012 and China in 2013 with other teenagers who had been in juvenile halls. Katie got to meet students from other countries and share her story. Katie believes that these incentives do more to help kids like her than the just the punishment of being incarcerated and the cycle that usually follows.

Katie now lives on her own, has a steady job, where she was promoted within six months, and continues to share her story of success. Erin Gruwell is eager to meet more incredible teenagers like Katie when she visits the San Diego Juvenile Hall this holiday season with Daniel Ybarra. Together, they want to remind the teens that there is hope for them and that, like Katie and the Freedom Writers, they too, can end the cycle.

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