Weymouth High Rotary Interact Club members wrapping holiday gifts for teens in December 2019.

From the second I walked into Melinda Mahar’s classroom at Weymouth High School, its walls and podium plastered with colorful quotes about dignity and equality, I knew that far more than World History was being taught in this space. Melinda herself radiated warmth and good will, her smile easy and generous.

In addition to being a beloved history and psychology teacher at the school for the past twenty years, Melinda’s quest to find effective ways to teach kids empathy has led her to the role of adviser for the Rotary Interact Club, which she has held for the last ten years. With fifty active students enrolled, it is the largest club at Weymouth High. The group takes part in a number of activities throughout the year to give back to their community and beyond. They volunteer monthly at Father Bill’s Shelter in Quincy making dinner and distributing the hot food to homeless people. They also participate in the 30 Hour Famine, which is sponsored by World Vision, raising money and awareness for world hunger by fasting for 30 hours. This year, the money raised was donated to the Weymouth Food Pantry, Heifer International, vaccines, clean water, sanitation and hygiene for needy communities abroad and programs for women and children in rural Nigeria (all donated via Rotary.org). In addition, each year, the Rotarians “adopt” a child to send to school by selling Yuda Bands for scholarship money. The bracelets are made by women in Guatemala (thus supporting small businesses for women) and the proceeds go to the scholarships of a pre-chosen needy child abroad.

Hearing about all this, I was really impressed with Melinda’s commitment. Organizing all these things on top of teaching her classes and being a wife and mother of two seemed like a life of service anyone would be proud of — not to mention enough to keep her very busy. But, as we all know, when you need something, it is always best to ask the busiest person in the room. This past winter, the school approached Melinda to help continue a tradition of identifying and helping students at Weymouth High who may not be receiving holiday gifts.

In her words, Melinda simply agreed to “fill a hole where there was a need.” But just filling a hole is not really Melinda Mahar’s M.O. She’s going to seed it and plant some flowers on top too. In her words, “the more [she] looked, the more [she] saw.” Rather than rely on existing information available to her about kids in need, she sent out her own requests to all the staff and teachers at Weymouth High to make sure no one had been missed. She then decided to include the siblings of the high school students in her collection. In addition, the students identified included a couple of kids living in two area residences for teenage youth in Weymouth and Hingham, and once she realized there were other, out of district students living in these facilities who would not be receiving gifts, she was determined to help those kids too.

Eventually, she had identified 40 Weymouth High teens plus 10 of their siblings and 22 kids in the DCF facilities and set about conjuring up donations. Many were collected by staff and students at Weymouth High. The Weymouth Rotary Club president turned her annual neighborhood block party into a collection event. $3000 worth of gift cards were donated on behalf of Tanner’s Run. Then, Channel 7 caught wind of the efforts and did a piece on the news and even more donations flooded in. In addition to helping with the collection, the Rotary Interact kids organized and wrapped the gifts. When all was said and done, these efforts meant that each of the 72 area youth identified received clothing, toiletries and a gift card for the holidays.

Being the hard-nosed investigative journalist that I am, I decided to contact one of the school adjustment counselors about Melinda to make sure I was getting the whole scoop. She shared this story:

“Several years ago I mentioned that one of my students whose family relied on the food bank said that she wished they had things like cake, cupcakes, and brownie mixes so that she could bake with her younger sister so that they would have baked goods to bring into school. The next day Melinda brought in a bag of cake mixes, a gift card to Stop and Shop and tons of beautiful items for cake decorating for me to give to my student. Melinda wanted no fanfare or acknowledgement, she just wanted the student to have the positive experience of baking with her sister. Needless to say the student was absolutely overjoyed.”

And my source added:

“As a school counselor I know that . . . Melinda understands the “whole child”, she treats them with respect, kindness, and humor, and provides consistency, structure, and clear expectations that they require. That is why she is so beloved by her students and staff.”

We are in a time where kindness does not always make headlines. But people like Melinda are not only making sure it happens but, equally or perhaps even more importantly, providing life lessons to ensure that it will keep happening for future generations. I think Melinda summed it up best:

“I’m honored to be in a role where I’m able to lead people . . . I positioned myself as an educator in the community so that I could do the most good for the most people – but also teach others to do the same. I do not take my job lightly. It is an awesome responsibility to teach children empathy. Teaching through doing is the only way. “

And that warmth, good will and easy, generous smile I noticed? Go back and read my post about how total wellness includes the benefits one derives from community engagement and caring for others and the “virtuous cycle”: the more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more joy we can bring to others. Pretty sure Melinda is caught up in this cycle.

It’s Easy to Get Caught in a Virtuous Cycle: Ways to Get Involved

If you are a parent, you are obviously in a great position to teach empathy, especially during the holidays. But many local organizations collect toys and clothing for those in need all year long and can easily be identified with a few quick online searches.  Or organize a collection party for items to donate to Fostering Care (what a great idea for a kids’ birthday party theme!)

In addition, I reached out to Bay State Community Services, the organization that runs the youth homes on the South Shore, and they are currently forming a community support committee. Please email them at volunteers@baystatecs.org if you are interested in getting involved.