A Helping Hand

With less than a week left in class, the students of Mason Elementary receive a special treat. Second and third graders entered the auditorium and wait for an unexpected guest to arrive. They found out that morning that an author was coming and she has a special story to tell. Margaret Mason (no relation) quietly enters and stands on the stage and opens her book, “These Hands.” She turns the page and the grandfather says that his hands could do anything.

“These Hands”, published in 2010 and illustrated by Floyd Cooper, follows a heartfelt talk between a grandfather and grandson Joseph. He remembers the past, he remembers growing up in Detroit and he remembers all the wonderful things he could do with his hands. They could play piano, shuffle cards and swing a baseball bat. Mason turns the page, and the grandfather says that his hands could do anything but handle the dough at the Wonder Bread factory.

The hands that Mason writes about belonged to her friend Joe Barnett. In the 1950’s, African American workers were only allowed to sweep floors, load trucks and repair machines in bread factories. The discrimination went on for years before the passing of Civil Rights Act. Barnett worked tirelessly as a leader for the bakery unions that brought an end to the discrimination. Mason turns the page and the grandfather says it took hands joining hands to overcome.

It took an organized community to fight for itself and for its children. As a result of of the community joining hands all those years ago, Joseph is able to play piano, shuffle cards, swing a bat and bake a loaf of bread. Mason turns the page and the grandfather says that your hands can do anything, anything at all.

And although all hands are now free to reach for dreams, the tools to succeed seem out of reach for so many of our children in underserved communities. Detroit Public Schools has one of the nation’s lowest graduation rates in the nation. The school system is also managing $325 million in budget cuts threatens to close 29 schools and reorganize an additional 50. And when a problem threatens to limit the futures of children, it takes an organized community to make change.

There is no single answer to solving the problems of the education system. The students of today can’t wait while hands are tied by five year plans. There are immediate needs that can be addressed by the combined efforts of individuals and organizations in the community.

Mason’s presence in the school is part of her commitment to empowering youth by teaching through oral history. Her visit isn’t the only example of community action. Emily Martens, a 12-year-old Girl Scout from Cincinnati, organized a book drive and donated several hundred books to Bess the Book Bus reached through her community and on into Detroit. Earlier in the week, author Deborah Diesen visited MacDowell Elementary to read The Pout Pout Fish to students and encourage them to work hard. The ongoing efforts of individuals in the community greatly strengthens the futures of students.

The Eight Mile Boulevard Association has been linking local business efforts for 18 years to revitalize the community. Its partnership with Citgo will help improve the schools. It ties the Fueling Good movement in on the local level. Their presence in the schools will mean ongoing book drives and fundraisers to help put the future back in these students hands.

Leave us a comment to let us know how you are giving a helping hand in your community. The 2011/2012 Transitions/VSP Success is in Sight Tour continues with stops in Missouri, Kansas and Colorado. For daily updates, you can follow Bess the Book Bus on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.

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