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Jerry Davich: Gary students raise donations, spirits, hopes for city

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View more photos and watch a video at posttrib.suntimes.com. Also, tune in to Jerry’s Casual Fridays radio show this Friday for an on-air chat with Kania and his student elves.

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Updated: December 18, 2013 1:49PM



Rob Kania looked happier than Santa Claus on Christmas Eve when he dropped in at Wal-Mart with dozens of his student elves.

“I’m so proud of these students,” gushed the physics teacher at Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in Gary. “Just look at them enjoying what they created.”

A few dozen Bowman seniors converged at the Portage Wal-Mart to spend nearly $5,000 on more than 400 toys, gifts and clothes for needy kids across Northwest Indiana.

Now in its eighth year, Kania’s Angel Tree project, through the Salvation Army, raised a whopping $5,200, easily surpassing last year’s total of $2,100.

“I love the Salvation Army because they list the kids’ needs and wants, and we want to make sure they are all taken care of,” Kania explained.

He is in his 17th year of teaching and this project hit an all-time high a couple years back by raising $3,500 to help 35 needy kids.

“My initial goal this year was just $500, thinking if each of my five classes could only raise $100,” Kania said while giving directions to the students. “But raising $5,000 is insane. Even I can’t believe it.”

The former athletic coach is in his second year at Bowman after being a teacher at Portage High School, where he began this holiday season project. This year he has only 100 students at Bowman, compared to 200-plus at PHS, yet the Bowman kids worked hard to raise the funds.

This included proceeds from the students’ families, the school’s student council-organized sock hop last week, and a $1,000 donation from the school’s PTA.

“Raising the money was even more fun than shopping for these gifts,” said 18-year-old Ryndea Foster of Gary, as she used a calculator to add up her purchases.

“This project also helps their math skills,” Kania whispered to me as his physics students calculated their gifts’ costs.

The Salvation Army’s Angel Tree Project asks kids in need to fill out a wish list of items, and the Bowman students fulfilled the list for more than 40 of them. One of Kania’s former students, who’s a WalMart pharmacist today, helped re-energize this year’s project.

“My student leaders are always amazing and they do a great job organizing the purchases,” Kania said.

Kania’s student-leader elf, 17-year-old valedictorian Dana Hudson, coordinated most of the project’s details, telling me, “This makes us feel great to help out others in need.”

After shopping for the gifts, the students helped wrap and deliver them to the Salvation Army.

“It is organized chaos, but it is the greatest Christmas celebration I know,” Kania said. “Our students get to shop and take care of kids who may have never had a Christmas. I always tell them, just imagine if this is the only time they get a Christmas like this. Let’s do it right.”

“And to think I wasn’t going to do the project this year,” Kania said with a chuckle. “I didn’t think we had a chance to match last year’s efforts.”

Despite all the negative news that people hear about the city of Gary, its residents and its future, it’s important to remind outsiders that such stereotypes aren’t always true.

“This project shows the hope and promise of these kids and their city,” Kania told me as his students hustled around the store. “It also shows that they really care about other things beyond their own lives. They just don’t get many headlines.”

They do today, I told Kania.

As we know, a layman’s definition of physics is the science of matter and energy, and the interactions between the two. This unsung project illustrates a similar synergy between something that profoundly matters and the energy behind it ­— Gary’s youth — the city’s most promising resource.

“Some people don’t have a whole lot of hope for Gary right now, but there are great people there,” he insisted. “This project reflects their spirit.”

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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