Modesto students with struggles of their own do their part to restore hope in Paradise

Activists, Glick Middle School teacher Jamey Olney tells her students, are ordinary people making extraordinary differences.

Now, through an extracurricular project called HOPE, some of her teens are showing that adversity isn’t an obstacle to also being an activist. “I believe serving is the most powerful way to overcome personal adversity,” said Olney, whose English language development students include:

  • A boy who had a botched surgery on his leg and now walks with a permanent limp. His dad died when he was 10, and his mom didn’t pursue a malpractice claim because she is undocumented.

  • A boy living in poverty, who told her he doesn’t have money to give, but does have time.

  • A refugee whose family fled war and violence in Afghanistan. After one year in the U.S., she now helps other newcomers learn English.

These kids and others — a cancer survivor, a student whose home and neighborhood have been plagued by domestic and gang violence — are giving their time to bring HOPE (Helping Other People Everywhere) to those in need.

In November, Olney led a group of 12 kids to feed the homeless in Mono Park and along South Ninth Street in Modesto. Saturday, the young volunteers moved beyond Modesto to help a father and daughter who lost their Paradise home to the Camp fire.

Through the news and their current-events studies, the students knew of the Camp Fire devastation in November. They also recalled the many days of unhealthy air as its smoke spread far beyond Butte County. So when Olney and Trish Stoops, a teacher’s aide at Glick, were looking for a way to spread the HOPE Project’s influence, Paradise seemed a good choice.

The two women made the three-hour trip north a couple of weekends back, to look for opportunities. They were directed to Dale Morgan and his 11-year-old daughter, Jaelyn, who were local celebrities, of sorts, because among the few things they saved from their home were their prized tickets to the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game against the Washington Redskins.

Eleven students (30 others were on a wait list) and some adult volunteers drove up Saturday morning and spent more than five hours helping the Morgans make some property improvements.

“We were helping them make a fence line, laying out bark,” said Marcos Aguiar, a 14-year-old seventh-grader. “We were shoveling, leveling the dirt and raking it and taking all the rocks out of there.” Removing ash was another big part of the job, 13-year-old seventh-grader Adrian Estrada said.

It was hard work, even harder at first, Marcos said, until he and his classmates began to work as a team. “Everybody had a job and sometimes we’d switch off because someone would get tired,” added eighth-grader Valentina Porras, 13.

The day was exhausting — Marcos didn’t get out of bed until 2:30 Sunday afternoon, Valentina said she was drenched in perspiration and still can feel a bit of soreness in her neck — but all five students meeting with Olney and Stoops on Monday morning said they’re up for a return trip. Even several return trips.

Valentina shared that helping others has been healing for her. Her middle school years have included personal struggles she shared with Olney, her counselor and her principal. “This school shows so much support to where you don’t have to hide nothing from them,” she said. “... I think when I gave (the Morgans) my support, I felt good because I was giving them my support that I received with my challenges I faced.”

Seventh-grader Jorge Solano admitted that on the way to Paradise, he was wishing he hadn’t gone on the trip. But by day’s end, he said, he felt “joy in my soul” for having helped the Morgan family.

The 12-year-old suffers a disorder that causes tumors to form. His first was at age 3, behind his eye, and was treated with chemotherapy. His second formed on his jaw when he was 10, and his third was on his shoulder in June. “I’m still with the chemo,” he said, adding, “I felt good helping other people while people (are) helping me.”

Marcos said he was surprised not to see a lot of other people volunteering to help rebuild Paradise. Stoops, who’s worked with Habitat for Humanity and The Fuller Center for Housing, said that’s in part because little construction is happening yet. The current effort is focused on removing debris and hazardous materials, she said.

The work Morgan is doing on his property, Stoops said, is to beautify, to bring hope and new life to his community. He next wants to plant a few saplings, she said, and the Glick group is planning a return trip in about a month, to help.

He’s grateful to the students for giving their time and energy to help him and his community, Morgan said. “The kids were great, they were awesome with their attitudes,” he said by phone Monday. “They worked hard, did far more than they were asked to do.

“They came to make a difference ... (and) they definitely should have a sense of accomplishment.”

Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.