Edison teacher to spend year helping hurricane victims
CHAMPAIGN – John Kirkpatrick grew up lending a helping hand to others – something learned by example from his parents.
As a kid growing up in Granite City, near St. Louis, he helped fill sandbags alongside his parents and seven siblings when the Mississippi River flooded. In college, he went on work trips with Campus Crusade for Christ, and he later volunteered in Manila and Bangkok and spent a summer teaching English in Mexico City.
So it's not surprising he spent a week of his winter break from his teaching job helping clear debris in the New Orleans area and prepare flood-damaged homes for repairs.
But almost from the moment he got there, he knew he wanted to spend more time helping. In spite of the hard work, he didn't want to leave at the end of the week.
So he asked for, and was granted, a leave of absence from his job teaching social studies at Edison Middle School. He'll leave in early August to spend a year in Slidell, La.
"While I was there I did quite a bit, but I realized it was just a tiny drop in a tremendously large bucket," Kirkpatrick said. "I realized I'm in a spot where I think I can do this, and put some action to the words. I felt a sense of gratitude I'd been able to help somebody out. They appreciated every little thing that was done. I wanted to be able to impact more families than the handful I was able to impact when I was down there."
Kirkpatrick went to Slidell – across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans – in December with a group from his church, Community Evangelical Free Church.
For four days, he removed trees and other debris, including a mangled metal shed; stripped drywall and trim from flood-damaged houses; and helped residents remove their possessions. He saw miles and miles of devastation, and neighborhoods with only a few people who have returned to live, making it harder to rebuild the area.
In spite of that, "Everybody was really positive, really upbeat, and thankful people had come to help out," he said. "I can't fix the problem, but I can help one family at a time. To me, that means a lot."
Jonathan Ramirez, a math teacher at Edison Middle School, said he and his colleagues were not surprised by Kirkpatrick's decision.
"He's the type of person that will put the needs of others in front of his own," Ramirez said.
Kirkpatrick was one of the first to help out when Ramirez was a new teacher, and he's very involved in the lives of students and has great connections with parents, Ramirez said.
"He's an incredible teacher who gives his whole life to others," he said. "His whole life is dedicated to serving other people and being there for other people and caring about them, from his students to his fellow workers to the people down in New Orleans. That's what he's all about."
Kirkpatrick isn't the only one in his family who has inherited such altruism. He talked two of his brothers into joining him in Slidell. Both returned in January and are still there volunteering. His two other brothers have also spent time helping there this year.
"I guess I was brought up to always help. And I love doing it," Kirkpatrick said. "I put a lot into what I do, but I also get a lot out of it."
Kirkpatrick hopes the time away will strengthen his love of teaching and give him more credibility when he talks to students about service learning.
"I believe strongly what I do has a big impact on children's lives. I love being a teacher. But this was an opportunity to step outside that and maybe have more of an immediate impact," he said. "There is still so much to be done.
"Plus, I think it will make me a better teacher," he continued. "It will give me more experience having a connection with people with a different culture than mine – the Deep South versus the Midwest."
Spending more time with his brothers was a motivating factor as well. They'll be working through a church in Slidell that sends out work crews to residents who have requested help.
Giving up a regular paycheck gave Kirkpatrick pause, but he said he may do a little substitute teaching in Louisiana.
"He struggled with it a lot," Ramirez said, "balancing a desire to go down and serve, and a desire to continue teaching, because he loves teaching."
But it was never a question of whether it was worth the effort, Ramirez said, just whether he could make it work.
"A big part of my motivation for this is I'm a Christian," Kirkpatrick said. "I believe Christ's love compels me, and this is one of the ways I can respond to that."