From Runners to Orangutans: Local and Global Compassion in the Lower School

In the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans make their homes in the trees. A century ago, the orangutan population flourished. Today, rapid deforestation has decimated the population and orangutans are considered endangered species. Over 9,000 miles away from these Southeast Asian Islands, on a playground in Pittsburgh, Ellis students are worrying about orangutans. 
A group of grade 2 students hovers together discussing ideas to protect the rainforest and preserve the orangutans’ habitat. They’ve been discussing it for weeks. As time wears on, the group decides they want to spread the word about the orangutans’ plight. They talk to their teachers and ask permission to present to the Lower School at a Friday assembly. The teachers help them think of ways to include the whole second grade in the presentation. A speech is written. A slideshow is created. Students practice their parts.
 
When presentation day comes, the slideshow plays in the background as the grade 2 students teach us about Asia’s only great apes and explain the threats they face. They offer suggestions for how we can protect them––avoid foods made with palm oil, have a lemonade sale to raise money to donate to groups that protect the orangutans, write letters to people and companies with influence. In the audience, students reflect on these ideas and respond with what they think they could actually do to be a part of the solution. Within days of the presentation, students in the lunchroom are looking for palm oil in the ingredients lists of packaged foods. A parent posts on Facebook that her grade 3 daughter made sure the fries were not cooked in palm oil before ordering them at a restaurant. Another grade 3 student writes a letter to Nancy Pelosi to share her concerns. When grade 2 hears the news, they are excited that their message has made an impact on other students. Their belief that they can play a role in saving the orangutans grows.
 
At the same time that grade 2 is asking us to think about orangutans, grade 4 student Naima Karuga has something closer to home on her mind: girls in our community. She wants them to have the same opportunity to participate in something she enjoys, a program called Girls on the Run. She reaches out to the Ellis community through an email describing how much fun it is to run with her peers and the things she has learned about herself and her abilities. She talks about training to run a 5K race with her mom as her buddy runner. She asks for donations to the scholarship fund so that other girls in the community can experience the benefits of being a part of Girls on the Run. She recommends checking out the organization’s website, where a visitor can read that Girls on the Run seeks to teach essential life skills and inspire girls to recognize their inner strength and celebrate what makes them unique. One of the program’s goals is to make it accessible to every girl in southwestern Pennsylvania who wants to participate. Naima wants to be a part of making that goal a reality.
 
Why do Ellis girls care about helping other girls they’ve never met? Why do they care about orangutans in a place they’ve never been? It’s likely that empathy and compassion are part of the explanation. One of our goals at Ellis is to grow girls who are positive community members. From the first day of school, students understand that they are a part of a classroom team and a school community. They learn that there are privileges and responsibilities that come with belonging to the community. They learn to connect with each other and consider different perspectives. They come to depend on each other and root for one another. As students learn about the world around them, their idea of community expands beyond the walls of the classroom and the campus. They embrace the idea of belonging to a global community and they start paying attention. Ellis girls care because they know how to stand in another person’s shoes, whether it be close to home or a world away.
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