Operation Bearlift

An elementary teacher, weary of gimmicks such as Gum Day and Hat Day, turns to social action to build classroom community.

By Kate Lyman

Gum Day was one of my school’s most memorable community-building activities. The kids loved it. The teachers hated it.

Kids came in with backpacks loaded with gum. All day they traded, smacked, popped, blew bubbles, and worse. I thought I could keep the day manageable by having one rule: “The gum stays in your mouth.” But I found it unenforceable. Keeping an eye out for long pink or black or purple strings of gum moving from mouths to noses, knees, feet, and papers distracted me from teaching math and writing. Maintaining the flow of my read-aloud book, Song of the Trees, proved to be impossible. As Gum Day progressed, I became more and more irritable. I was spending more time monitoring gum than teaching, let alone developing a positive community.

Gum Day was followed by Hat Day, Pajama Day, and Green Bay Packers Day, all in the spirit of building a school community.

In addition, the district kept presenting teachers with programs reputed to eliminate discord and enhance cooperation. Programs came and went, each claiming to transform our classrooms, then fizzling out to be replaced by a new one. I tried some of the new programs. Some worked for a time; others didn’t.

Despite all the community-building activities and cooperation-oriented programs, I still was faced with 20-plus second- and third-grade students of various backgrounds, races, personalities, and different wants and needs. Even more challenging: They often had serious conflicts with each other.


It was several years ago, when I had a group of girls who were literally at each others’ throats, drawing blood, that I witnessed the power of social-action projects to create community from chaos. When 11 of the students were given half-day suspensions for fighting at recess, I knew I needed something stronger than gum or gimmicks to motivate them to learn and to cooperate instead of fight. That year we celebrated AIDS Awareness Week and proceeded to sell red ribbons to raise money for a group of local children whose mothers had AIDS. My mean and nasty girls quickly learned to cooperate as they folded and pinned the ribbons and planned their sales campaign. The magic of the AIDS ribbons project didn’t last the whole year, but after that initial experience of working for something bigger than themselves, the students and I found other opportunities.

Over the years we have bought an acre of Brazilian rain forest, sponsored a crate in the Humane Society, stocked cans in a homeless shelter, stenciled “Dump No Waste – Drains to Lake” on the storm sewers, picked up litter in the neighborhood, sent school supplies to pen pals in El Salvador, and written many persuasive letters, the latest to the newspapers and the school system about the need for a handicapped entrance at the front entrance of our school.

Each time we worked collectively for a social action project, our class expanded, at least for a time, beyond the individuals, beyond the classroom walls, and out into the neighborhood or world.

Last year I again had a group of strong personalities who fought authority and each other at every opportunity. I had other students who were so quiet and withdrawn that their voices were rarely heard. When I grouped students to do a science experiment, write class rules, or solve math problems, some groups dissolved into tears and anger, while others didn’t get started. Water was our topic, and we did several action projects, spray painting the storm drains and writing persuasive letters about water pollution; however, neither project had sufficient power to bring the class together.


Our opportunity came when Martha started bringing in articles about the hurricanes in her home state, South Carolina. The subject of the hurricanes in the news was a compelling drama that appealed to students who had stayed on the sidelines (or disrupted the class) during the discussions and experiments with water pollution. As the hurricanes moved to Nicaragua and Honduras, kids brought in articles or shared stories they had heard on the news.

The students wanted to do something about the thousands made homeless by the hurricanes.

“Let’s send them wood to build new houses,” was one suggestion. Another was, “We could all go down there and help them build new houses.” Katie, whose dad is our most dependable bake sale contributor, suggested a bake sale to raise money for food, water, and clothing for the homeless. I wished for a more direct way of reaching out to the victims, but the class was excited about Katie’s idea, so we went with it. Students spent hours making posters, writing announcements, and preparing speeches informing the school about our project.

Shoua, Samantha, and Kendra volunteered to write a story for the district newsletter. They wrote:

Room 27 is studying about Hurricanes. Hurricane Mitch had hit Nicaragua. Hurricane Mitch killed 10,000 people in Central American. A lot of families got killed. There was a mud slide. A lot of people were buried under the mud. The water was so high that people had to climb up on the rooftops.

We are trying the earn money for the survivors so they can have food, water and shelter. We had a bake sale for them on Thursday, November 12. We worked in groups to count the money. We made $76.06.

We are helping Nicaragua because it is our sister state. WE ARE SERIOUS!

The phrase, “We are serious,” became the theme for our hurricane relief projects. All the students, including the girls who had not been able to cooperate on any group activity, were serious about learning and presenting the facts of the situation and working together to raise the money.

The hurricane devastation was continuing – and so was the interest of my students. They wanted to do another bake sale, but I was searching for some other way for them to reach out.

I talked with the coordinator of our university’s Latin-American studies program, Willie Ney, and he gave me the email address of Bruce Harris, the director of a center for homeless children in Honduras. My subsequent inquiry resulted in a short note, “Dear Kate: Why not try this?” attached to a long article titled, “Casa Alianza Initiates ‘Operation Bearlift’ to Central America.”

I was hooked. The project appealed to me, as did the idea of working with the people in Honduras on a joint initiative – going beyond “us versus them” and approaching the project instead as “us with them.”

The correspondence, “Why not try this?” started a month-long project to join the efforts of Casa Alianza to send 100,000 teddy bears to homeless children in Nicaragua and Honduras. I read part of the letter to my class:

We have given teddy bears to street children in our programs … and the first thing the children do is hug it. You can tell your innermost fears and secrets to a teddy, and it does not tell you to ‘shut up.’ You can hug teddy and it does not reject you. You can hug teddy as you go to sleep, and you feel safe. … After the immediate needs of food and shelter, Casa Alianza feels that the mental health of the children is the next priority. … They can not cope with such a major crisis. Worse still if they have lost family members amongst the 7,000 dead and 13,000 missing.

After such a major tragedy, the least we can give the children is a teddy. They need to feel safe. The Operation Bearlift is underway.

The students in my class could relate to this. They shared how stuffed animals helped them feel safe. Most of them had experienced loss also. Latasha’s dad had been killed. Jeremy had lived in a homeless shelter for months. Yer had lost family members in Laos. Katie’s mom had been in jail most of her life.

Operation Bearlift was immediately underway in my classroom. I wrote a note to parents and teachers explaining the project. Knowing that we needed to raise money for postage for the bears, I bowed to the pressure of having another bake sale. Students began preparing to present our project to other classrooms.

At the end of the day Melissa and Jeremy read their announcement over the intercom, with Juan and Anita doing a translation in Spanish. After hearing the closing of their announcement, “WE MEAN IT! ¡ESTAMOS DICIENDO LA VERDAD!” the class cheered. Melissa, Jeremy, Juan, and Anita were welcomed as returning celebrities.

The next day the teddy bears started to come in. Despite the poverty of our school (over 50% low income in the school and close to 75% in my classroom), many parents sent in new teddy bears for our drive. Those that were not new were clean and in good shape. Several came with histories.

“This is the last thing that my daddy gave me before he died, “shared Latasha. “I keep it close to me when I want to remember him. But that’s okay. These kids need it more than me.”

Teddy bears were brought in by kindergartners who had to stand on tiptoe to add their bear to our collection on the vent by the window. They were brought in by teachers, the principal, the custodian. Soon the vent was full, and I pulled some desks over to accommodate the piles of bears.


On Friday, Dec. 11, we counted our teddy bears. Finally, we agreed on a count of 121. But we still had work to do. Groups of students stayed in from recess and skipped Choice Time in order to copy messages on cards in Spanish, punch holes in the cards, and tie them with ribbon around the bears’ necks. Nobody complained. Nobody fought. They all worked together to accomplish their goal. When the bell rang, the bears were all lined up by the window again, with their ribbons and messages.

I still had a major task. Each bear had to be wrapped in plastic and packed into boxes. I had wanted to get the bears off to the post office by that night, the deadline, but I wondered if I could do it.

Danielle and Courtney, two kids with strong wills that had gotten them into trouble many times, stopped in from the after-school program. “Can we help?” They worked with me for three straight hours, bagging and boxing the bears, while I taped and addressed the boxes. By six o’clock we had 11 cartons packed with teddy bears. Courtney had left to go home, but Danielle stayed to help open doors and load the boxes into my car.

On Monday, Danielle and Courtney shared their efforts with the class. The class was impressed. Kendra and Shoua worked together to write an email to Casa Alianza:

Dear Alianza, Our class made 121 teddy bears. We had a lot of things to do and a lot of counting. We had some teddy bears from some other classes and Kate our teacher took a long time packing the teddy bears to put them in the box and we even did a bake sale. We had to take turns. Each group had only ten minutes. DANIELLE and KATE and COURTNEY had to put the TEDDY BEARS in the boxes. We are hoping that the kids in Nicaragua and Honduras feel safe with their teddy bears.

By Kendra and Shoua, Hawthorne School, Madison, WI

Not only did Kendra and Shoua receive an immediate response to their email (“Thank you for your kind message. We start to deliver the teddy bears to the Honduran children on Friday. They are going to be very, very happy. Thank you for helping to make this happen!”), but they learned and taught others how to use the internet to bring up photographs of the Honduran children receiving the bears, with commentary on the personal histories of some of the kids. Shoua was particularly fascinated with the web site. She was constantly going over to the computer to go into The Operation Bear lift web site for more news.

The next day the principal came into our room to praise the class for its collective efforts for Operation Bearlift. They listened politely, but they did not need the praise. They knew how hard they had worked together. They appreciated each others’ efforts and felt proud to have reached out to kids in another part of the world.

This summer, teachers at my school are again meeting to design special all-school activities intended to foster community. I’m joining the committee so I can knock Gum Day off the agenda.

Kate Lyman teaches in Madison, WI. The names of the children in the story have been changed.