MALIBU HIGH SCHOOL — School may be about reading, writing and arithmetic, but learning comprises much more.
A Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District seventh grade history class at Malibu High took that lesson to heart, gathering up hundreds of pounds of clothing, shoes, school supplies and medical necessities for an impoverished village in Fiji.
Gabby Watkin, a class member, coordinated the effort.
She and her mother, Suzanne Donovan, planned a trip to the southeast Asian country of Fiji through a nonprofit that provides healthcare to Fijians when the country’s medical system fails. Donovan’s background as a doctor specializing in infectious diseases meant that she would be busy working in local hospitals, and Watkin sought a way to give back as well.
“(My mom) told me how needy they were, and how poor they were. I started getting really worried about what they would have to deal with there,” Watkin said.
An e-mail to the charity in Savusavu, Fiji revealed a shortage of basics for local children, from shoes on their feet down to pencils they would need in classes. This, Watkin felt, was a need she could address.
Watkin went to history teacher and baseball coach Ari Jacobs with a proposition: allow her to make an announcement to her seventh grade class about a donation drive to benefit the children of Savusavu, the proceeds of which would travel with Donovan and Watkin when they left for the island nation in November.
Jacob decided he could do one better.
“I think (community service) is one of the cornerstones of what makes the world go well,” Jacobs said. “There’s a quote in my room from Berthold Brecht: ‘Everybody needs help from everyone.’ It’s one of the reasons I’m a teacher.”
Last year, Jacobs rallied his classes to help an orphanage in Guadalajara, Mexico. Another round hit closer to home — a halfway house and battered women’s shelter in Ventura County.
He’d been searching for a project for the new school year when Watkin offered up her trip to Fiji as an opportunity for engagement.
Jacobs created a reward system called “boxes.” For every five articles of clothing or single pair of shoes seventh graders brought in, their class would receive one “box.” The class with the most “boxes” at the end of the collection period would win some kind of prize.
The competition lit a fire underneath his students, Jacobs said.
“They ate it up. They brought in hundreds of pounds worth of clothing and shoes,” Jacobs said. “It really really surprised me how motivated they got.”
At some point, it stopped being about the prize at the end of the semester. Students began focusing on Watkin’s trip, and the promise of pictures and video that would show them the impact their donations had made.
That became more poignant as Jacobs explained that the cast off pair of shoes or outgrown toy could be the new recipient’s prized possession.
Donovan got a shock when she began coordinating the delivery of the classes’ donations.
“I thought we were going to have a few boxes,” she said. “We have a 1969 pickup truck that I bought to pick up the supplies, and I couldn’t fit everything in it.”
On Nov. 1, Watkin and Donovan traveled to Fiji. While Donovan provided treatment to Fijians, Watkin spent her time distributing the supplies, helping in a “mommy and me” class and making presentations to the students about seventh grade in America.
It wasn’t all work and no play. Watkin managed to find time to dive with hammerhead sharks and barracudas — cage free.
“It’s so beautiful. Also, the people are so nice. Probably the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Watkin said.
Watkin keeps in touch with some of the people that she met in Savusavu, and was touched by the sense of community and togetherness that she found there. She knows that it was the community forged in her seventh grade class that made her journey a success.
“I couldn’t have done it without all of the help from Malibu High,” Watkin said.
The project gave Malibu students, who often live in a bubble of privilege, a way to step out of their comfort zone and see the way others live. Doing so empowers them to make a difference in the world, and should be an important piece of what school is about, Jacobs said.
“For me, self worth and social consciousness are two of the biggest things that schools are about. Of course they’re about standards and curriculum, and there are skills that you have to build in each class, but in my view of education, curriculum is one-third of the tier, and self wroth and social consciousness are the other two-thirds,” Jacobs said.