With the upcoming winter holidays, it isn’t uncommon for children to present their parents with a list of gifts they absolutely must have. When the garland and lights come out of storage, most kids are preoccupied with what festively wrapped boxes will bear their names come Christmas morning or the first night of Hanukkah. But not in the case of sisters Anna and Tracy Musselwhite. One afternoon they decided to break out the lemons and sugar and squeeze away to procure enough cups to satisfy thirsty neighbors.
This classic act of entrepreneurship, by those not quite old enough to join the workforce, was not done to add to their own allowances. They didn’t plan to keep the cash they collected from slinging the refreshing beverage. In a completely altruistic move, the girls decided to donate it all to their church so that kids less fortunate could have a memorable holiday. Proceeds went to cover the shipping costs of Operation Christmas Child, a program where gift-filled shoe boxes are mailed to recipients in more than 100 different countries.
“It makes me feel proud, obviously, but actually a little humbled to know that they are part of something bigger than they even realize,” said the girls’ mother, Cathy Musselwhite.
What started as a modest lemonade stand in a Mount Pleasant suburban street has grown into a charity phenomenon that has stretched into other states. LemonAID has encouraged more children to spearhead initiatives to brighten the lives of the less fortunate.
“We have had six stands, in five states – Tennessee, North Carolina, Delaware Virginia and Georgia – join our nationwide Operation LemonAID team,” said Musselwhite. “Some of them haven’t had their stands yet, so we are still in the beginning stages. But we are very excited about the progress so far.”
Perhaps the most rewarding part goes along with hearing the positive reactions from those who open the door to find a package assembled with care and thought. Contents of the boxes range from toys and stuffed animals to personal hygiene items and school supplies.
“We have heard shoe box recipients speak as adults about how receiving a shoe box as a child was a life-changing experience for them because it introduced them to Jesus and gave them hope,” said Musselwhite. “Tracy hopes to get a pen pal this year by including her address in the shoe boxes we assemble.”
From appearances on “Lowcountry Live” to addressing the church’s congregation to gain more support for the initiative, the Musselwhite sisters are no strangers to the spotlight. Fueled by the unwavering will to help children who didn’t necessarily grow up with as much as they did, continues to motivate them daily. The publicity of their generosity attracted the attention of The Samaritan’s Purse, a sister organization of Operation Christmas Child, prompting the group to send a representative to help boost fundraising.
“The most rewarding aspect would have to be the excitement Anna and Tracy show every time more money is raised or more publicity is given to the project,” said Musselwhite. “The flip side is that they are so invested in it that they can get disappointed when something doesn’t go as planned. They were very upset about having to miss speaking at a national conference in Florida to promote their initiative because of Hurricane Irma. It actually broke my heart to see them so upset.”
While the stand has now moved to Hibben United Methodist Church, the sisters have savored watching it steamroll into a project much more significant than they could have ever foreseen back on that balmy summer day in their front yard. In August, the Musselwhite sisters raised over $1,200 in just one day. However, this is still a few hundred dollars short of their goal. Interested donors are encouraged to log on to https://give.classy.org/operationlemonaid to help this worthy cause. Those who want to go a step further and get in on the action can also learn how to set up a LemonAID stand of their own.
Different, Not Less Than
Stories on bullying often dominate the headlines. While we may not all agree on the source of these less than ideal situations, one thing we can all support is more compassion and acceptance within the school system.
Third-grade teacher Samantha Shealy is fostering empathy and understanding in her Carolina Park Elementary classroom. Last school year, after reading the New York Times bestseller “Wonder” with her students, she was inspired to form Project O.N.E.E., an acronym for Open minds + New knowledge + Empathy = Extraordinary change. In the R.J. Palacio novel, the protagonist of 10-year-old Auggie, who is singled out for his facial deformities, learns to find his voice, make lifelong friends and overcome obstacles.
Impressed with her students’ curiosity with this unlikely hero at the center of a story of resilience, Shealy made an effort to introduce more stories about unique individuals and even created a partnership in which special education students and her own could interact. The end result is a mutually beneficial venture in which hearts are touched, minds are expanded and character is built.
“The Citadel Foundation supplied $500 worth of books for my third grade classroom and all of the text sets featured main characters with a varying ability,” said Shealy. “After the great success of the program last year, which started as reading with and educating students, stemmed into a buddy program that changed us all, we were eager to continue Project O.N.E.E., especially now that Miss O’Brien and myself were now under the same roof at Carolina Park.”
By shining a light on those in our society often deemed disabled and bringing to the forefront their special qualities, Shealy has kick-started a necessary dialogue about acceptance and compassion.
“Our favorite line in “Wonder” is, “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind,” said Shealy. “My students learned that kindness is a choice. We choose to be kind. It became an honest effort to be as kind as we could to every person we encountered as we do not know what goes on in other’s lives.”
Project O.N.E.E. has already been praised by parents, faculty and community members who see the magnitude and impact it has had on all parties involved. Transformation can be seen on both sides, even prompting some students to take their efforts beyond the walls of the classroom.
“We have received nothing but positive feedback,” said Shealy. “I have had students take the initiative to volunteer at outside events, participate in the Walk for Autism and continue to spread kindness daily. Parents have been thrilled not only with what their students are learning academically through Project O.N.E.E. but the values that are being instilled in their children as well.”
“Seeing how special education students can interact, communicate and socialize with their peers is an extremely rewarding experience,” said Elizabeth O’Brien, a special education teacher at Carolina Park. “The buddies are sincere, loving and passionate students who are impacting their peers in significant ways. Our buddies are helping with academic, functional and daily living skills while helping our students love school.”
From helping the special education class with fine motor skills to socialization, Mrs. Shealy’s third-graders have truly surpassed expectations – perhaps laying the groundwork for future careers as speech pathologists or physical therapists.
“Simple skills such as making eye contact, holding a conversation or knowing how to greet someone appropriately are skills most people take for granted, while our special education students must have models and practice to learn these skills,” said O’Brien. “Having peer buddies and models for our students have helped them reach many functional skill goals.”
“I believe this is what teaching is all about,” said Shealy. “I want my students to grow into the best citizens they can be. If we instill a genuine love for all people at an early age, it can potentially change a child’s life forever.”
Having the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes is at the core of Project O.N.E.E.
“We do not know the hardships they may or may not face,” said Shealy. “We all have different qualities to bring to the table and those are to be valued. My students quickly began to discover that we all want to be treated with respect and kindness. I have found my students sitting with children eating alone, asking a child that is alone on the playground to play and being genuinely nice to others.”
This movement that has grown simply from a passionate educator adding a unique book to her lesson plan continues to gain momentum. Both Shealy and O’Brien are excited to bring new ideas to this evolving program in the next school year.
“Seeing genuine relationships establish between children whose paths would have probably never crossed and become like family has been the most rewarding piece of Project O.N.E.E.,” said Shealy. “Witnessing the bond between big buddies and little buddies is truly indescribable. Watching students make the decision to be kind and think about others’ needs at such a young age is incredible.”
By Kalene McCort