Lodi Unified students collect coffee for soldiers serving overseas

Students, parents and staff from Oakwood, Westwood and Washington elementary schools donated 576 pounds of coffee to the National Guard offices on Washington Street Tuesday morning as part of a weeklong Kindness campaign. (Chelsea Vongehr/Courtesy of Lodi Unified School District)

Two years ago, Cassandra Sotelo began a campaign to get her students involved in giving back to the community while serving as vice principal at Borchardt Elementary School.

The mission: collect coffee for the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces serving overseas.

Hoping to turn the Kindness Campaign into an annual event, Sotelo was eager to collect donations of coffee last spring, but the effort was sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But this year the campaign was back in full-swing, and with additional help.

Sotelo, now at Oakwood Elementary School in Stockton, was able to recruit the principals and families of Oakwood and Washington elementary and collect 576 pounds of coffee.

The three Lodi Unified School District campuses donated their bounty to the California National Guard offices on North Washington Street Wednesday morning. The shipment will be delivered to the 143rd Artillery Battery/40th Calvary Regiment, 40th Infantry Division.

“We were surprised,” Sgt. Richard Gonzalez said. “They called us up and coordinated this. We didn’t expect this much coffee. But we really appreciate it, because we do have a lot of troops overseas. They’re going to love it. They’re going to have a little bit of home overseas.”

Gonzalez said the donated coffee will be shipped to various units next month, and will be used by about 300 soldiers.

“Coffee is our lifeline overseas,” Gonzalez laughed. “For our missions over there, we need it.”

Prior to COVID-19, Sotelo said students would be treated to an assembly about performing small acts of kindness and how a simple gesture can change the world. She said an act of kindness could be anything from smiling at a friend or holding the door open for someone.

Sotelo said the students at Oakwood, Westwood and Washington were challenged to perform a total of 15,000 acts of kindness.

Collecting the coffee for the troops was the large community service project that coincides with the acts of kindness, she said, adding students at all three schools loved the challenge.

“We teach them it’s a nice thing to do for our military men and women,” Sotelo said. “When they go overseas, a nice warm cup of coffee reminds them of home. It is too, just promoting kindness and trying to give kids an opportunity to see that they do have it within themselves to make a difference and that it doesn’t need to be grandiose, and this can help make a person’s day better.”

The coffee collection effort was not only designed to help youngsters understand the importance of community service, but a way to thank the military for their service.

“My late father was a Marine, very dedicated, so I kind of grew up with that kind of perspective,” Sotelo said. “But also just because our military is very present in our communities, and they do quite a bit for us, so it’s important for our children to be connected to people in our community that are trying to make the world a better place.”

Washington Principal Susan Petersen said her campus was invited to join the project after she contacted other principals for ideas to engage her students in the community during a time of distance learning.

“We were struggling as a staff, and the students were just having a really hard time,” Petersen said. “(Cassandra) emailed me and said ‘we do this kindness challenge every year, would you like to be a part of it.’ And I was like, ‘oh my gosh, yes!’”

The Kindness Campaign was kicked off last Monday, as staff provided students with “kindness kits” containing a random act of kindness list to check off, pages to color and place behind them for Zoom class meetings, earphones and books.

Petersen said her students, as well as parents and staff, had a great time giving back.

“We had several staff members tell us that the students were so engaged with the daily activities and lessons on social emotional learning,” she said. “I must have had 30 different messages from students in my inbox last week for a different variety of reasons, just really engaged with the activities. It was really exciting to see, so I think it was a huge success.”

The students at the three schools performed a combined 15,537 acts of kindness last week, which were recorded on a Google form.

After each act of kindness, a student would record it on the form, and the act would electronically update a digital gauge in real-time. It also updated every time a coffee donation was made at campus collection sites.

“During distance learning I had a tab open on the gauges,” Washington sixth-grader Gian Jay said. “Every 30 minutes or so I’d go and check it.”

Jay and fellow Wildcat sixth-grader Natalee Corlett said the week was a little stressful because the students had a set goal of collecting 1,000 pounds of coffee for the troops, but were only able to collect a little more than half that amount. They still felt proud of their efforts, though.

Corlett said she would like to participate next year, if possible.

“It might be like out of this distance time, because it’s a little harder during the distance learning,” sixth-grader Natalee Corlett said. “But it’s still able to be done, and if I was able to do it again, I would.”

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