Bahai News - Helping Out for Sat., May 27, 2000

Helping Out for Sat., May 27, 2000

Karen Gail Jostad / Star Tribune

Lyn Mitchell has an adoring family. Also a school full of kids, teachers and administrators who think she's tops.

Earlier this month, the 42-year-old mother of four from Minneapolis was honored with the B. J. Reed Award for outstanding volunteerism in the Minneapolis Public Schools. Reed, a Minneapolis educator who died in 1996, founded the first volunteer program in the Minneapolis Public Schools in 1965. The award recognizes volunteers whose skills and expertise benefit students and schools in the community.

A volunteer at Windom Open School for 10 years, Mitchell was cited for being a "guiding force in building a stronger educational community in the schools," for her ability "to inspire and lead others" and for her "unique ability to bring together students, teachers, parents and administrators to advocate for change relating to children's growth and education."

"There's incredible meaning for me in thinking about building community in Minneapolis as it changes," Mitchell said. "I love the challenge of devising ways of getting kids to think about their world and be in the world," she said, "and challenging them to be active, kind participants in the world."

Robyn Cousin, coordinator of volunteer services for the Minneapolis Public Schools, said, "Lyn is one of those people who can balance raising four children with really being able to give of her energies to the community at large and understand the importance of building ties with the diversity that exists within her community and school."

"She's been tremendously active -- a real driving force for getting things done here at Windom School," said Carol Reed, volunteer coordinator for the school, which has about 500 students, 36 percent of whom are English-language learners.

But one of her most significant contributions was founding, with Terese Pritschet and teacher Patricia Hauser, the Love Makes a Family Anti-Bias Education Project, which teaches children to accept diversity in their schools, Reed said.

Valuing diversity 

Love Makes a Family was developed after an incident at the school several years ago when a second-grader, the daughter of lesbian parents, received a letter stating, "I hate you, girl lover."

The parents took the incident seriously and got support from other parents, the administration and teachers to address the issue.

"It created a culmination of energies for parents who had chosen Windom because they wanted their kids to have a diverse school experience," said Pritschet, 44, of Minneapolis, whose children attend Windom School.

The three women developed a curriculum of children's literature for a book project about different types of family experiences. Categories include: multiracial families, adoptive and foster families, parents who have divorced, gay and lesbian family members, families dealing with various disabilities and stories about families experiencing disruption because of immigration, homelessness, aging or death.

Volunteers, usually parents, read a story about one of the topics to the children and lead discussions and help with journal writing.The children also are encouraged to depict what they've learned through drawings.

"Teachers have told us that kids that don't usually speak in the classroom are speaking up and sharing about their lives," Mitchell said. "I guess they're feeling validated."

A manual is being prepared for use by other schools, synagogues and churches and discussions have begun to expand the program to the middle school.

"We also dream of having projects available to teachers who want to explore these issues . . . to help them find ways to integrate them fluidly or naturally into their existing curriculum," Mitchell said.

"Instead of just dealing with the incident alone, we're saying that all children, from a very young age, need to be educated and really start thinking about what differences among people really mean," said Rose Chu, 39, of St. Paul, a middle school math teacher at Windom and a board member of Love Makes a Family.

"A lot of stereotypes come from the fact that kids learn it from adults and other sources," Chu said. "If we don't take charge in the school and a proactive role in educating children about the differences, then the children will be indirectly educated, by the media, for example, or other outside forces," she said.

'Magnetism' at work 

Whatever Mitchell has her hand in -- volunteering in the classroom, organizing a fund-raiser, or chaperoning a student event -- she does it with a "magnetism" that makes others want to be involved, Pritschet said. "And, she has a magic with the kids," Pritschet added.

In April, Mitchell organized "Piece of the Puzzle: Celebration of Diversity Night." More than 450 parents and children attended the ethnic potluck and program that included Latino music, performances by the Bahai Dancers and Teatro de Pueblo, as well as a student art exhibition.

"We're so fortunate to have a parent like her," Chu said. "She's very supportive and understanding of the work the teachers do. She understands the challenges we face and truly wants to support us," Chu added. "The kids know who she is and they know they can count on her."

Mitchell also is active in church youth groups and cross-cultural exchange programs and has delivered medical supplies to Nicaragua through Project Minnesota Leõn.

"I see her as modeling very successfully the values that she's working to integrate into the classroom community," said Pritschet. "They have to do with respect across differences and acknowledging everyone's place at the table."

"We're all sharing our soul through our volunteer work -- and building and fortifying our souls," said Mitchell. "It's fun to see how it works and you get a lot of energy back, too."

For more information about the Love Makes a Family Anti-Bias Education Project, call 612-824-8090.

©Copyright 2000, Star Tribune

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