Teaching Empathy

From Brooke Travers, Youth Coordinator Extraordinaire: I have the best job. It is at once inspiring, challenging and rewarding. I come to work every day with an open mind and heart, and am rewarded with the same from the young people that I work alongside.

Last Wednesday, I had an experience that made me remember once again that my life has changed dramatically (in the best possible way) since I accepted my position at the Inner Harbor Project last May. It was a somewhat abnormal day, sandwiched between and early dismissal and snow day in a stretch of several weeks where I didn’t get to see students regularly due to the weather. As students come into work, they sometimes pop into my office to check in with me about their lives outside of IHP, and that particular day was no exception.

Markell, a 15-year old freshman who has recently transitioned out of a Baltimore City School and into one in the county, came in with a huge smile. “Brooke, I have a story to tell you!” I smiled back at him, knowing that his stories are often outlandish and funny. “Sure Markell, what’s up?” He proceeded to tell me about something that had happened to him at school. He was sitting in Health class, and his teacher was explaining to the students that March is Autism Awareness Month. She held up a bunch of blue bracelets, and told the class that they were holding a fundraiser in honor of those with Autism, and that the bracelets were one dollar. The teacher asked them to raise their hands if they’d like to purchase a bracelet.

I should interject here to say that I have been in that teacher’s position before, and that asking high school students to use money to support a cause is usually a risky business. When I was in her shoes I was nervous that my students wouldn’t understand how worthy the cause was, and that no one would participate. I can only imagine that she felt that same nervousness.

Markell paused here in the story (for dramatic effect, no doubt), and reminded me of how much he loves donuts...yes, donuts. I agreed that his love for donuts is legendary, and he proceeded to explain that he only had one dollar that day, and that was his donut money. When the teacher explained the cause, and no one else raised their hand, Markell decided that buying the Autism Awareness bracelet was a better use of his dollar than donuts. I assure you, this is no small thing! His teacher also wrote him a very nice note, and as he showed it to me, his excitement was palpable.

I got up and gave him a hug, and told him how proud of him I was. I proceeded to give him a dollar to get his donuts, and another dollar to buy me a bracelet. He took his off and gave it to me, promising that he would buy himself another bracelet. This was followed by two snow days, and yet he kept his promise. Yesterday, he showed me that he had remembered to buy another bracelet. I can’t really express how exciting this is, both for Markell and for me. The way that his compassion for others has grown in the last year is astounding, and I am so happy to be able to see him, and the other youth leaders, continue to flourish every day.