By Taylor Lightsey
Ziegler Elementary School is comprised of five to six hundred students from kindergarten to eighth grade. More than a building for learning, this school is a haven for many of its students. Locked down from the outside this concrete building with no air conditioning (a foreign concept to this Floridian) is nestled in the middle of a low-income, high-crime profiled neighborhood in northern Philadelphia. Parallel-parked cars crowd the roads and each tiny town house sits but a few feet away from its neighbor. Many of the students at Ziegler walk to school through this same concrete jungle in which they wouldn’t dare play basketball in for fear of the violence that has enveloped this little neighborhood.
The biggest challenge these children face growing up is being overcome by a worldview that limits them to dropping out before completing high school and naturally sliding into the same impoverished lifestyle led by the previous generation.
Where I come from, you ask a small child what they want to be when they grow up and expect a bright eyed response of becoming a ballerina, an astronaut, and at least one dreamer who claims that they will surely be a pirate.
On our first day at Ziegler, as we asked this same question we quickly realized that to ask them to dream was foreign, unfathomable. Most of the children’s spirit to dream has long ago been disheartened as they grow up witnessing divorce, domestic violence, abandonment, adoption, drugs, gang violence, murder, etc.
Dreaming is not the only rare commodity around Ziegler Elementary. For the vast majority, also unfamiliar to these children are organized sports, problem resolution, and school spirit—really… spirit in general. This community is in a drought; void of the fruit of the spirit and the living water that is the gospel.
Our goal as a team of 6-8 was to throw these 550 students the first spirit week Ziegler had ever seen. On paper it sounds impossible, but serving a God who can’t be summed up in simple text, we were blessed beyond our means. Especially with such a small team, I knew God would have to do something drastic here. He would have to be the one to move in the hearts of these kids to let them be spirit filled. We could have had all the supplies and ideas in the world, but God would ultimately have to do the heart work.
Going in, being firmly grounded on a plan of action— that rug was quickly ripped out from under us and that is when I believe the Holy Spirit took over. Through the medium of stickers, coloring sheets, silly dances, competitive games, candy giveaways, a school painting project, and organized sports, we brought the students daily virtuous lessons of Hope, Individuality, Self Control, and Friendship.
The same kids who are daily serenaded with violence rather than resolution and raising your voice rather than reasoning, were so quick to respond to our questions of what it means to have hope and to be a friend.
The same kids whose view of love has been severely fractured by their environment were quick to light up as they saw us walking down the hall, learn our names, and race to wrap their arms around our waists for a quick embrace between classes.
Our goal was to give the kids 5 days to take ownership, to reclaim their right to dream beyond what society expects of them; to give them back a hope that, where they come from, does not have to dictate who they will become because that is not where their identity lies.
Society says anonymous; God says priceless. Society says they’ve already failed so why bother; God says that Christ came so we have life and have it abundantly.
These kids are hungry; hungry for more than their school certified free meals that most of them depend on, they are hungry for the love of Christ. I was privileged to be the hands and feet to represent this love to them last week and challenged to pray for the unsung heroes that have dedicated their life’s work to influencing the beautiful little souls that walk the halls of Ziegler Elementary School.