Making Christmas Shine Bright All Year Round

With temperatures dropping from Maine to Mississippi, snow in the forecast (or on the ground in lots of places), and kids gearing up for winter break, Christmas is getting close. For many of us, this really is the most wonderful time of the year. But for too many Americans, especially children, it's anything but that. It's the time of year when their parents' forced choice between heating the house and paying for health care becomes especially painful, when monthly food stamps that can only be stretched for three weeks means the dinner they had been looking forward to is pitiful rather than plentiful, and when ads and store windows chock full of magical toys, books, and games serve only as sad reminders about dreams that are out of reach.

For sure, Americans are at their most generous this month. The Salvation Army, Toys for Tots, and hundreds of smaller charities do great work to make the holidays a little brighter for these kids. But their problems don't end with the New Year, nor should our efforts to combat them.

One organization that is doing that hard, year-round work and driving real progress in 50 communities and counting happens to be very aptly named. But you've probably never heard of it. So as we all make mental lists of things worth celebrating, add Bright Futures USA to yours, as thousands of children and their families, teachers, and schools in "flyover" communities already have.

Bright Futures, which first emerged as the brainchild of a team of teachers, parents, and community leaders convened by then-Joplin Missouri public schools superintendent CJ Huff, now works in schools across Missouri and Arkansas as well as in Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Virginia. And its seemingly simple three-part formula for school improvement - meet every child's basic needs within 24 hours, engage the community to take ownership of schools and address longer-term issues, and embed service learning in every classroom - has evolved in more mature community affiliates, like Joplin, into a powerful tool for enhancing teaching and learning. It's also a year-round Christmas present for students and teachers alike.

One teacher describes the snack packs that keep low-income students fed on the weekends and well-stocked clothing "pantry" as "a tremendous weight lifted off our shoulders. We educators had dozens upon dozens of people loving our students and filling needs." A parent who volunteers as a Lunch Buddy - taking half an hour each week to eat with a student and hear about her day - describes the joy he gets out of the experience. And Huff got to personally witness a joyous surprise when all 235 students in West Center Elementary School showed up for its assembly in colorful stocking caps that two elderly members of the local church had knitted for them. These are all gifts not only to children but to the adults around them.

Even more unique, however, is Bright Futures' approach to ensuring that Joplin's most disadvantaged children, who in most districts would be relegated to under-resourced schools and to classrooms that are less-than-conducive to learning, get the opposite. In the aftermath of the devastating tornado that ripped through the city in 2011, killing 161 people including seven students, Huff had the benefit of disaster relief resources to work with. One of the key decisions he made was to invest not only in a new state-of-the-art combined elementary and middle school that would nurture its students' social and emotional skills, but to move a group of his poorest students into it. When they and their parents took a tour of Soaring Heights Elementary just before it opened in January 2014 and told him "we don't deserve such a beautiful place" to learn every day, Huff realized that he was giving them a truly rare gift - the knowledge that they, like every child, is worthy of the best their community can offer.

Among the amazing things that happen when this kind of magic starts to take hold is that the children who see their entire communities coming together to support them feel the need to give back. Joplin fifth graders who heard about their counterparts in Moore, Oklahoma's Plaza Towers Elementary School having lost seven classmates took service learning to a new level. With the support of their teacher, they developed and pitched to Huff a plan to raise funds and books for a replacement library for the Moore students. The presentation even included the cost of renting a bus, plus gas and tolls, so that they could deliver the gifts in person and talk with the Plaza Elementary students about their own tornado trauma and the process of healing.

School leaders across the country are working with Bright Futures to continue to spread this love. The newest affiliate has just gotten started in Fairbanks, Alaska. And closer to home, Frederick County, Virginia superintendent David Sovine recently convened six of his peers to explore the creation of a regional Bright Futures strategy. With over half of all US public school students - our nation's future workers, parents, neighbors, and leaders - eligible for free and reduced school meals, and a growing share coming from immigrant and non-English speaking families, a community-wide blanket of support is a gift we can't wait any longer to give.

Each of us has something to give - time, talents or treasure, so let's start now. Whether it's serving as a mentor once or twice a month, providing food or clothing for a child in need, or simply asking our school's principal how we can get involved, together, we can all help create "Bright Futures" for our nation's children.