It began with a group text Paris Harrell received from her friend Talyn Tatka: “What can we do to help the kids in your class?”
Her group of seven girlfriends, all in their twenties, regularly communicate on a thread, and earlier in the year, they helped buy books for Paris’ students.
While Paris is technically a second-grade teacher at Windsor Park Elementary School, she has an unofficial role as a parent and family advocate at this Title 1 school which has a high number of low income and immigrant families. In Paris’ class alone there are twenty children who speak half a dozen languages and represent over fourteen countries.
“My heart and my passion is with the families. If you really take the time to support the family, in the language they speak, that’s how you really help the child,” Paris says much wiser than her twenty-six years.
Last year, Paris taught the whole school a problem-based curriculum with a focus on Integrity and Social Justice. With funding cut this year, however, Paris became the teacher to a classroom of seven- and eight-year-olds.
With the COVID-19 crisis hitting families hard, normally, Paris would have already reached out to her friends with ideas to help, but Paris’s grandfather had recently died this month. While he was not a victim of the coronavirus, his funeral was, since large gatherings are no longer an option.
“It was just me and my mom,” Paris said. “It was so sad.”
So after a small celebration of her grandfather’s life, Paris returned to support the children and families of Windsor Park.
“I work at the best school with the best principal, Shanna Rae,” Paris gushed. “When Ms. Rae realized how many of our families need food during the year, she started a pantry.”
Knowing many Windsor Park families were struggling with groceries even before food shelves were being emptied for coronavirus stockpiling, Paris suggested her seven girlfriends contribute to a grocery fund. With those donations, Paris made the first delivery to a pre-k student’s family who were in crisis.
The family was so overwhelmed with gratitude, Paris knew she was onto something that could really help. Paris created a Google doc form that her fellow teachers could submit food needs of school families. Rather than a food pantry where people are just given what is available, Paris hoped to provide specific requests which allow more dignity through choice. While some simply ask for “Anything you can find,” others, Paris read were achingly basic:
Paris began her grocery shopping and delivery project on March 18th the day after her grandfather’s small service. But in a short time, it has become a spiral of good. Everyone in the school from the principal to teacher assistants have played a part donating more than half of the $753 Paris has collected. Another teacher, Stephanie Kelly, has helped with deliveries and the donations have been generous from teachers who have little spare income as it is. Requests come in every day beginning at noon and by 3pm, Paris and her fiancé, Avery Speight, are grocery shopping in the neighborhood stores. As extra bonuses, Paris adds in hand sanitizer and toilet paper when she finds them.
When Paris and Avery, arrive at an apartment community with many Windsor Park families, practicing social distancing is difficult. The children who know her as “Miss Harrell” swarm her car attempting hugs because they are desperately missing being at school.
“When can we come back?” they ask some in English, some in Spanish, some in Vietnamese. They may speak different languages, but they all want the same thing: to be in community again.
Paris’ heart for others and skill for communicating through language barriers goes back to her own childhood. Born into a family with grandparents who spoke no English only Vietnamese and Cantonese, Paris’ first language was Vietnamese. When she went to school, her ESL teacher insisted she speak only English and thus, she quickly lost her native tongue. Because of that, Paris lost the ability to communicate with her grandparents. Over the years her grandmother learned a few phrases like “eat your vegetables” and Paris eventually taught her grandmother how to FaceTime. It gave her the patience to understand the parents’ of her students intimidated by technology in a world that demands it. In her classroom, she encourages her students to learn the language of the United States but not to forego the language of their families.
In these first five days of deliveries, Paris has realized there is one particular apartment community in dire need. She knocks and waits for the family inside to open the door knowing they are immigrants and fearful of what a knock may bring. Sometimes, Paris has to use exaggerated hand gestures to communicate the delivery is free and that they have nothing to fear. While she may not speak their language, their smiles and tears are universal.
Paris has grown particularly fond of this apartment community. “Even though I know they are struggling, I feel joy when I go there. They are a village taking care of each other.”
Other stops are more troubling. “There was a homeless family with six kids under seven in one hotel room,” Paris said. “It was heart-breaking.”
Paris tries to fulfill orders within twelve hours because almost all the requests are marked “Emergency.” In a single day this weekend, Paris and Avery delivered to twelve families and she knows the need will continue to grow. Paris has created a unique way to help in this crisis and the school launched a Venmo account so that others can help. If you Venmo the Wildcat PTO account, Paris and the teachers will continue to serve their Windsor Park community with deliveries. Once the coronavirus crisis subsides, any remaining funds will be used to support the ongoing school pantry. In order to help other schools or struggling communities, Paris has documented her system so others can freely replicate and create their own network of drivers and shoppers.
Paris has even discovered an app, Route XL, that makes her deliveries more efficient. One day, the route seemed to have taken her down the wrong street and Paris was frustrated to have lost twenty minutes in the wrong direction. She knocked on the door of what she thought was the wrong house only to find that maybe, it wasn’t a mistake after all. While it wasn’t the home she was looking for, the woman who answered the door, Maria, asked what Paris was doing with the bags of groceries. When she explained, Maria’s face lit up.
“My husband delivers bread!” she said and donated fifty free loaves.
“That is what I am learning in all this,” Paris said. “Even when things seem wrong, they lead us to a beautiful place. Coronavirus is terrible. But we are seeing a lot of God moments through it as well.”