Following their character education, students at Farmington Middle School acted upon themselves to take care a member of their school family in her time of struggle.

For the last three years, Farmington Middle School has been introducing character education in almost every realm of its curriculum. Although it is now a district-wide initiative, middle school has always been the leader in this program.

With a member of their educational family in distress, students reacted to one of the columns of character—empathy—and rose to the moment to work collectively to help that person out.

According to Kim Canter, one of the Character Education advisers at middle school, Washington-Franklin first grade teacher Sarah Wilson recently gave birth to a daughter, Lillian. Through social media, the school’s character council discovered Lillian was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, (TOF), with pulmonary atresia.

According to Boston Children’s Hospital website, TOF is a congenital condition, where the baby has five heart abnormalities and must be corrected by surgery, typically before the child is six months old.

“Lillian has already had open heart surgery, and she is going to need a second surgery.” Canter said. “Sarah is having to be out of school and is missing a lot of work to take care of her baby, and with the second surgery, we knew she was going to have a lot of financial strain. Our students wanted to help.”

At the beginning of the school year, Canter and Kelsey Koppeis initiated “Worthwhile Wednesday" - a program that created a family-like environment and utilized service projects.

“With our service learning projects, our students learn about the problem first, so they actually understand the problem,” Canter said. “So the first thing we did was to challenge our advisory to discover what TOF with pulmonary atresia is so they had an understanding of the condition.”

The next step was to challenge each advisory to devise a plan in which each one could raise money for the Wilson family. Canter’s advisory family set a goal of raising $100, another advisory family held a bake sale, while two others formed a dodgeball tournament.

But probably the most successful advisory family event was created by two students in Carla Gibbs' class. The two, Charles Bequette and J.P. Ruble, suggested a “violate dress code day” where students, for a $5 fee, could wear clothing typically considered a violation.

“We had been challenged by the character council to come up with a way to raise money for the Wilson family,” Gibbs said. “My two students came up with the idea to violate the school dress code for $5."

Gibbs said she told the students she wasn't sure administration would go along with the idea. Assistant Principal Todd McKinney visited Gibbs' classroom to hear a presentation about their idea.

During the presentation to McKinney, Bequette and Ruble presented their idea. They asked that students be allowed to violate the dress code, within reason, and wear such clothing items as pajamas, hats or jeans with holes just a bit higher than normally allowed.

After listening to the students, McKinney agreed and Gibbs' class proceeded to make Dec. 15, “Violate Dress Code Day” and successfully raise $677 for the cause.

But more than just being able to wear comfy clothes to school, students at the middle school learned a great deal more. They discovered empathy and learned what a family must do when one of their own gets sick.

“We started our project learning about Lillian’s condition, which really opened their eyes,” Gibbs said. “We learned how expensive it is to have all those surgeries, the cost of driving back and forth to St. Louis and the expense of eating on the road. It was a lot of work on the front end by Mr. Howe and Mrs. Canter, but these kids now have a better understanding of what is going on.”

Gibbs also expressed her appreciation to McKinney for listening to her students. As a result, they were able to raise a substantial amount of money.

On Tuesday morning, Dr. Lori Lamb, the principal at Washington-Franklin, presented Wilson with $1,951 raised by the students at middle school.

“I thought it was really neat that the students cared enough to learn about Lillian and everything she is going through and to help my family out during this difficult time,” Wilson said. “It was very sweet what they did, and I was shocked to see how much they were able to raise.”

Lillian is scheduled for her second surgery on Dec. 28 to hopefully correct the condition for good.

Craig Vaughn is a reporter for the Farmington Press and can be reached at 573-518-3629 or at cvaughn@farmingtonpressonline.com.

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