Grand Haven High School students don’t have to watch the movie “Pay It Forward,” they live it every day in sixth hour.


Social Studies Teacher Brian Williams leads an innovative Pay It Forward class at the school in which students identify then create solutions to local, real-world problems like hunger, homelessness, bullying and abuse.


The goal is to help kids develop a sense of empathy for the struggles of others and a stronger connection to the community around them.


“You’d be amazed to see the changes that occur in the students,” he says.


Senior Samantha Striegle, 17, is among the changed. She’s a veteran community volunteer. Yet after several months in the class, she exclaims with amazement, “There are so many people in need!”


Currently, she’s part of a team working to provide holiday meals for the less fortunate. The team also is making a video about the experience to share online. They hope it will encourage others to get involved.

Teammate Andres Contreras says the class is “really an eye-opener.”

“It teaches us to be more selfless and gives us a better understanding of how to understand others. It’s by far my favorite class.”


Many students at the school agree. The initial class last spring filled quickly. Twenty-eight students were lured by the class’ promise and unusual focus. Students visited Love Inc., migrant farmers, the Children’s Advocacy Center and others, and as it turns out, they loved this stuff.


Williams was pleased with the impact it had on students.


“It was one of the greatest things I have been a part of in education,” he says.


When it was offered again this fall, 20 percent of the senior class signed up, compelling Williams to add a second class, and still he had to turn away nearly 40 students. He hopes to expand the class again next year.


“The impact of the class has been very powerful,” he says.


Students spend the first weeks of the term visiting nonprofits that focus on what Williams calls “very real subjects.” That’s followed by a leadership phase, in which students work with the school’s principal developing leadership skills.


Finally, students form small teams that focus on ways to help.


This semester, for instance, one team is developing a presentation on bullying to share with other schools. Another is creating a dodgeball tournament to raise funds to help the homeless. Yet another is staging a benefit concert for the Children’s Advocacy Center, which provides prevention and intervention in the investigation, assessment, and treatment of child sexual abuse.


The community benefits, of course, but the class’ biggest impact may be on the students themselves.


“They understand we’re dealing with real issues here and it really impacts them,” Williams says. “It’s an emotional experience when the blinders come off.” 



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