POINT PLEASANT — We’re in The Room — command center, HQ, ground zero — for Pay It Forward. The Room is virtually vibrating with energy as six coltish teenage girls pull out racks and fling open cupboards to reveal a cache of clothing, grooming supplies and canned goods all destined for give away to any student who needs them.
Pay It Forward is the brainchild of Sydney Crawford, Lindsey Oxyer, Teshia Porter, Erykah Roach, Mattie Shuler and Darrian Walker, 9th grade students at Point Pleasant Junior Senior High School. They founded the organization just one year ago, but the enormous impact they’ve made in that one short year has earned the group the Spirit of Our Community award for their Youthful Leadership.
These young women have miraculously accomplished in just a short time what so many larger, richer more experienced organizations have not. They have made a direct and positive impact on the lives of many of their classmates—students who may have suffered the taunts of bullies or who may have lacked the resources that would better enable them to fit in comfortably in the classroom or corridor.
Operating under a solemn oath of secrecy to never reveal the identities of those they help, the six focus on students who might benefit from a donation of clothing, food or personal grooming supplies and quietly approach those students to determine if the donation is welcomed. With the student’s permission the items are placed in their locker with no one the wiser.
Without exception, the teens agree people would be shocked at how many of their classmates are struggling. “Maybe they don’t have the right clothes. Or they get picked on,” Teshia Porter said. Bullying and its consequences are too often in the headlines these days. After attending a class about bullying these girls, friends already, banded together with the idea they could make a difference. Thus, The Room was born.
“At first the teachers were skeptical that a group of 8th graders could do this,” according to Erykah Roach, “and the first few weeks were a mess. We could literally sit on the mountain of clothes” that were donated. But the teachers and school administrators quickly came together to back the group. “We told the teachers what we wanted to do and many of them already had kids in mind who needed help. One teacher had a whole list,” Roach said.
The girls spend several hours each week in The Room sorting, organizing, folding and stacking. As long as their schoolwork doesn’t suffer teachers are permissive in allowing them to leave the classroom to work on the project. “We all became really close when we started the room,” said Mattie Shuler. “The room not only seals our friendship but helps others too.”
That was the point—helping others. “We want kids to understand we’re just trying to help,” said Darrian Walker. “We’re definitely not making fun of them. “
“We’re not judging them,” added Roach. “I’ve definitely learned not to judge people by appearance,” she said. “Now I judge them on attitude.” As anyone who has ever had, known or been a teenager knows the right clothes can make all the difference in attitude. “You can see it,” Roach said. “They stand up straighter. They don’t hunch over.” “They act happier,” piped in Lindsey Oxyer.
It’s not just clothing these dynamos offer, it’s backup as well. As in “we’ve got your back.” Porter tells of one incident when the group became aware of a boy who was being bullied. Fearing his despondency might lead him to harm himself, they made the administration aware of the situation. The bully was dealt with and things improved for his victim. “We want the people who are picked on to know they’re not alone,” Roach said. “We want them to know that if you need help, we’ll help you. We notice.”
Back to The Room, which is far neater than most rooms that house a teenager. Pay It Forward gets some backup itself. The six members and their mission get assistance from Consumer Science Class members who take responsibility for washing the donated clothes and from students in the Career Center who have built clothing racks for the project. The teens are quick to voice their gratitude to teacher Deborah Cottrill and advisor Anthony Toler for their guidance and support as well.
Thanks to their youthful optimism these 14-year-olds see no reason to confine their efforts only to their own school. “We want to branch out,” said Sydney Crawford, “help other schools too.” And they hope the program will continue long after they’ve graduated. They may be small in number, but the scope of their ambition is boundless. More. There’s more to do, more to help. Oh, and Ellen. They want to be interviewed by television host Ellen DeGeneres.