BY PETER CHIYKOWSKI
Last semester, 17-year-old Caroline Mierzwa inspired Carmel High School’s WE Schools club to collect 3,300 toiletries for San Francisco’s Family House, a not-for-profit organization providing accommodations and emotional support for the families of children undergoing treatment for life-threatening illnesses at the University of California San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital.
The club had collected canned food and toys for charity before, but a drive on this scale was unprecedented. It was Caroline’s belief in Family House’s work—fostered during her experience as a summer intern with the organization—that moved her peers to action.
“We really got to see [an example of] someone who took an idea and ran with it,” says educator Leigh Cambra of Caroline’s leadership.
Still in its early days, Leigh helped establish the club in response to student enthusiasm after the school attended last year’s WE Dayin San Jose.
As the educator told WE during our interview, what makes the basis of Caroline leadership within the WE Schools club special is the fact that as a youth, she already has experience in affecting positive change within her community. “So many times [our students] do really cool things when they go off to college, but to have a student do it at the end of junior year and come back to tell everybody about it—that’s huge. It inspired a lot of kids.”
For Caroline, her inspiration started at home. Growing up, she was faced with the hardship of learning first-hand how childhood illness can devastate a family, having lost her youngest cousin to lung cancer, while her seven-year-old cousin in Poland continues an ongoing battle with cystic fibrosis.
Caroline’s decision to volunteer at Family House was a natural choice. Evidently an all-in type, the teen approached Family House last summer about becoming the organization’s first live-in intern.
Hailing from the small town of Big Sur— three hours down the coast, it was a daunting move. She had never lived in the big city or apart from her parents before; the thought of her first day away from home was intimidating, for that reason and more. “I was definitely nervous about how the families would react to me,” recalls Caroline.
She learned to face her fears quickly and by day two, she was running the front desk—a position no volunteer had ever covered before. Determined to earn her keep and do all she could to support the residents of Family House, Caroline would sometimes helm the front desk until 11:00 p.m. in order to be available for guests.
Welcoming people to their home away from home reminded Caroline of what her family had gone through in Poland. Sometimes they would drive five hours to get medical treatment for her cousin and then going days without showering, while sleeping on floors and in cars.
Caroline recounts welcoming families, some of who had only just arrived by helicopters in the same clothing they had been wearing for a week “When families come up to you and say ‘I don’t have anything, do you have anything?’ To be able to say ‘Yes, we can help you’… that speaks more than words.”
One guest in particular, though, literally had a strong hold on her: a two-year-old Tibetan girl, whose family moved to America to seek treatment. While the child was still learning English, this didn’t halt communication. She would simply wrap her small hand around Caroline’s pinky finger, until she agreed to colour with her.
“She would always grab me and say, “’Play with me! Play with me,” says Caroline. “It was so heartwarming… she couldn’t really communicate with me, but she still wanted to be with me as much as she could.”
And Caroline wanted to be there—for this little girl and the rest of the Family House residents, but after five weeks living among them, it was time to return home for her senior year.
When Caroline returned to Big Sur, she looked to the WE Schools club to help continue her work for the families she’d left behind in San Francisco. The club had a reputation for helping other school clubs with charity drives and volunteer actions, as part of the WE Schools’ initiative to take one local action and one global action.
“What I like about WE is that you have the local action and the global action and it’s not directed,” comments Leigh. “By creating this club, we could do whatever we want to.”
And what the WE Schools club wanted to do was help Caroline’s new extended family.
Together, students visited freshman classrooms with Caroline sharing stories about the families she had met over her summer internship. Soon after, the ninth grade homerooms were competing to bring in donations.
By the time the drive was over, the WE Schools club needed a van to be able to transport all their boxes on a field trip to see Family House for themselves.
“They all were pretty much blown away,” says Leigh of the visit. “So often we do these drives and then somebody comes and picks it up and that’s it. For [the students] to actually see where all that stuff collected is going–watching as these families come up with their kids in wheelchairs [or seeing] kids hooked up to oxygen—it was a big eye-opener.”
As Leigh suggests, the WE Schools club provides an opportunity for Carmel students to learn beyond the classroom. “I tell them all the time: When you look back on high school, you [may not] remember what you learned in Spanish class today, but you’re going to remember those experiences you had and the people that had an impact on you.”
For Caroline, working with the club to support a cause–the people–close to her heart was an unforgettable experience. “It’s really touching for my [own] family,” shares Caroline. “They’re all exposed to hospital hardship, and for them to see that I am trying to make a difference in the lives of families who are undergoing what they went through… it’s just really touching.”