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Webster Elementary staff lead food drive to help Harrowgate families

Many local families have benefited from the food, gift cards, and rental assistance.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

John H. Webster Elementary School and the surrounding Harrowgate neighborhood have been giving back to each other for years. Since 2014, faculty and administration have created ties to several faith-based and civic organizations in the area to establish a presence with the surrounding community. Their engagement is part of Philadelphia’s Community Schools Initiative, which aims to create relationships between schools and their neighborhoods, forming supportive environments that promote students’ long-term success.

As the pandemic closed schools and exacerbated economic hardships for the Webster families and the broader Harrowgate community, these relationships proved more valuable than ever.

One such community institution is the Mission of St. Joan of Arc.

In 2014, Sister Linda Lukiewski, the pastoral minister at the Mission of St. Joan of Arc, began an afterschool program at the Mission, which is two blocks from Webster on Frankford Avenue. The location is ideal for families whose children attend Webster, and the Mission program serves an average of 25 Webster students every year.

Webster Girls on the Run tend to the Mission garden.

The two organizations have collaborated in several other ways. For the last three years, Webster’s Girls on the Run students and their coaches have helped in the Mission’s spring clean-up and maintained their community garden. Upon realizing that many students used the Mission’s food pantry, the faculty and staff have initiated several food drives under the leadership of Webster teacher Nancy Wagoner-Fackelman.

In April, the Webster and Harrowgate communities suffered from the death of Webster 1st grader Tazmir Ransom. His death deeply affected both communities at a time that was already challenging because of the economic effects of the pandemic. In what felt like a helpless situation, the Webster faculty felt driven to help. Though they were not in the school building, they wanted to help alleviate the hardships that many of their students’ families were experiencing: food insecurity, sudden unemployment, the lack of childcare, and the inability to pay rent and utility bills.

Several members of the school faculty and staff contributed to this effort. Wagoner-Fackelman, with the support of Webster principal Sherri Arabia, school counselor Beth Beitler, school secretary Bettyanne McIhenny, and several other teachers — most notably Dawn Ehmann, Bernadette O’Brien, Kayla Gusst, and Jenny Rypinski — spread the word among faculty and friends.

On May 5, they arrived at the Mission of St. Joan of Arc with four vans stocked with food for the pantry, as well as $2,756.37 in donations and more than $600 in gift cards. These gifts were to be used to defray some of the expenses that many local families were experiencing.

Lukiewski said she was deeply touched by the teachers’ generosity and compassion. As the pandemic creates economic hardships for many families, Lukiewski has been drawing on the gift to help those in the Harrowgate neighborhood in need. She said that many local families have benefited from the food, gift cards, and rental assistance.

Lucy Duckworth is an 11th grader and a reporter for Voices, the student newspaper of J.R. Masterman High School in Philadelphia.