From Lee’s Summit to Westport, neighbor helps neighbor

Mary Jane Nelson has been a retired teacher for close to a decade now, but that hasn’t stopped her from staying connected to the students at Prairie View Elementary School in Lee’s Summit.

Not only does Nelson still substitute regularly at the school, she also has been involved with an annual art project that taps the artistic abilities of students there and benefits people caught in dire situations.

Students in grades 3 to 6 spend a few art class periods decorating sacks – 70 in all – donated by HyVee to be used as gift bags during the holiday season.

A member of Lee’s Summit United Methodist Church, Nelson and about a dozen other volunteers then take the decorated sacks, stuff them with necessary items and deliver them to an outreach program based out of Revolution United Methodist Church in Westport.

The program, Neighbor2Neighbor, serves homeless, near-homeless, and indigent people in that part of Kansas City.

“It’s a homeless shelter that runs about 70 people – about 60 men and 10 women,” Nelson said. “My (volunteer) group takes a meal to them the first Tuesday of every month.”

At Christmas, the group fills the student-decorated sacks with shampoo, deodorant, toiletries, a scarf, gloves, a hat and small amount of candy.

“My oldest son dresses like Santa Claus and we take them up usually the Thursday or Friday before Christmas and deliver them,” Nelson said.

Nelson initiated the project with her own students. Then, thinking that others would interested, too, she asked art teacher Stacie O’Neal if she would take charge of decorating the bags.

“It’s a really fun project,” said Hunter Elliott, a fifth-grade student at Prairie View who was all in on the decorated sack mission. “This is the second time I’ve done it and it’s a really good feeling.”

Elliott’s classmate, Jovana Tica, said the project was meaningful in that the sacks would benefit those less fortunate.

“I feel kind of good because I would feel kind of bad if I didn’t get presents for Christmas,” she said.

For her part, O’Neal said that each year, students are more and more excited to participate.

“Part of just getting along with our community is sharing,” she said, “During the holiday time, it just brings to them how fortunate we are that we have warm places to live and we have the needs and necessities, and that we can be a part of the giving process.”

Nelson is gratified that the efforts of children as young as 9 can brighten the day for a group of mostly men in the Neighbor2Neighbor program.

“The men up there are really thrilled when they find out that the children decorated them because they are not around children very much,” Nelson said. “I thought this is a good thing for kids to understand that they are men basically who adore children but never have a chance to be around them anymore – not even their own grandchildren.”