Project Name: Save A Mustang!

Team Members: Jannett Alcantar, Dariela Fernandez, Edgar Garcia, Makeda Gershenson, Elizabeth Lizarraga, Catherine Malinis, Klenia Moscoso, Scott Roosevelt, Damian Zavala

School Name: Milwaukie High School

School Size and Description: 1,342 students; Grades 9-12: Public High School in the North Clackamas School District

Location: Milwaukie, Oregon

The Need: In March of 2015 a student attending our Metropolitan Family Service CAFE program asked to talk to me privately. The inspirED team within the CAFE program had created a safe place for students to come after-school. She let me know that she had been diagnosed with a severe kidney disease and would eventually need a kidney transplant. The student was attending our classes to recover credit lost due to her illness. I listened quietly as she shared her condition. She told me that she didn’t want her classmates or teachers to know because she was afraid they would treat her “differently.”  She worried about graduating on time, told of the stress the illness was putting on her mom and spoke of her fears about the surgery.

That May I received a call telling me that she had collapsed and was in intensive care. I called a fellow inspirEd team member and we went to the hospital. The mother was struggling to understand what the doctor was saying. Our staff member began translating. Her daughter would need a transplant as soon as possible and would immediately begin dialysis 2-3 times per week. We learned that the hospital required a savings account of $10,000 to put her on the active transplant list. We listened to her mother cry and tell us that this was an impossible financial goal to reach.

The Plan: After an initial visit with the hospital social worker, I asked her mother’s permission to share her situation with the staff at Milwaukie High School. I went to the principal and he in turn met with the student coordinator who proceeded to open a GoFundMe account to raise the $10K needed.

Our inspirED student members participate voluntarily. They collaborate on work projects, have discussions that explore their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. They also participate in 10-30 minute Social Emotional and Learning sessions using inspirED as well as life coaching and EQ activities. Within days of hearing about their fellow team member’s illness, they made flyers for the “Save A Mustang” fund (named after our school mascot). The flyers were plastered at businesses throughout the community. Team members were able to get a local grocery to donate candy that they sold to classmates; the Latino Parents Association organized a car service manned by team members; CAFE soccer players dedicated games to the student and solicited funding at local soccer games. Within 6 weeks the fundraising activities exceeded the original $10k goal.

The Results: Almost one year from the onset of her health crisis, Prom Night 2016, our student received the long awaited call from the hospital informing her they had found her a kidney. The surgery went not without “bumps” but she was released 2 weeks later with a functioning kidney.

Our CAFE inspirED participants are predominantly Latino ELL students in a school that is largely Caucasian. Many of our students arrived in the U.S. within the past ten years, most leaving extended family and community networks behind. A number of Caucasian students at MHS have parents, grandparents and even great grandparents who once attended MHS and are still in the community. The school is steeped in proud traditions with deep historical context that “everyone” except our CAFE students seem to know. The divide was apparent and the school district was having a difficult time bridging the “divide.”

Our CAFE (Child and Family Enrichment) program welcomes all students. It provides a foundation grounded in SEL and cultivates an environment of openness, curiosity, kindness and encouragement that is very appealing to marginalized students. We in turn learn about and celebrate the diverse cultures of our students. I quickly learned, however, that we were frequently referred to by the Caucasian students (and staff) as the “Mexican kids.” So I worried when we launched “Save a Mustang” if parents (already strapped for financial resources) would be able to make a difference. And would the larger community see our student as an “outsider” and ignore the call for help?

The immediate impact of inspiRED was a tangible network of support. Students came together to create relationships across grade levels, across cultures and interests. When the crisis hit, there was a swift, unified call to save the life of a classmate—their fellow “Mustang.” Developing social and emotional skills through experiences outside a regular academic setting allowed students to explore new perspectives and discover new things about themselves and others. Because they’re better able to navigate their own experience, THEY become models of support for each other.

The spirit of our collaboration was then showcased when an inspirED team member was chosen to speak at graduation. In her address she outlined the fundraising challenges and thanked the 300+ graduates and nearly 1,000 family members filling the coliseum — many of whom had helped. She shared that the surgery was a success and that united in our efforts we “Saved a Mustang”. On their feet immediately, the crowd cheered as a community.

The Future:  The need to change long held mental modalities and institutionalized educational systems has reached a critical point in our society. I believe this change is more likely to occur when we focus on creating a viable, well developed framework that offers a compelling alternative to current practices in school communities which are experiencing rapid change, competing needs and diminishing resources.

The next steps for our project at MHS are to solidify the principles and practice of SEL and connect our team to the new resources now available through the inspirEd community. I plan to use some of this funding to reach into our elementary and middle feeder schools to continue our weekly mentoring programs and introduce younger students to SEL principles modeled by their high school mentors. I would like our program to celebrate culture and create art framed by “Growth Mindset” principles and grounded in SEL practices.

My advice to other schools is that because institutional paradigm shifts occur often in minutes, CELEBRATE your victories together! I have also found that the very problem that schools feel most unprepared for and are most afraid of is often the best place to insert the principles of SEL and the Growth Mindset framework not with “talk” but by modeling and implementing a tangible, sustainable course of action. Ask questions and listen well, persevere when you are tired, and take good care of yourself so that you can maintain unwavering faith in our human ability to gain intelligence, continually grow and embrace change.


Catherine Malinis

CAFE Site Manager

Metropolitan Family Service

Contributing Author:

Makeda Gershenson, MEd, EQ Educator

Curriculum Specialist

Metropolitan Family Service