A Lesson In Empathy


Massapequa teacher and students aid local food pantry


Joining teacher Denise Baldinger from left were Sean Gorman, Patrick Radomski, Kristen McCaffrey and Kristen Bilich.
(Photo courtesy of the Massapequa School District)

For the past five years, Denise Baldinger, who teaches ninth-grade health class at the Massapequa High School Ames Campus, has been collecting food to make Thanksgiving baskets, with the help of her students in the six classes she teaches. Ninth-graders are asked to donate nonperishable items including canned vegetables, coffee, cookies, gravy and juice. Students are also asked to donate one dollar, which goes toward gift cards for turkeys for families seeking aid at Massapequa’s St. Rose of Lima Church food pantry. Baldinger is part of the St. Rose congregation and she has been spearheading this initiative for the past five years. In addition to trying to help the less fortunate, Baldinger feels the idea of practicing charity and showing empathy is an important lesson to share with her academic charges.
“We actually do this every year. I make it clear to the students that this is nondenominational and it doesn’t matter what your religion is. It’s a public school and I don’t want them to think that this food pantry only helps Catholic people, because whoever goes there, they don’t ask if you’re Catholic. You can be Jewish or any religion. We do talk about typing and judging people and how you feel good about yourself when you help people, so I tie it into that. I tell them that we’re going to make one basket per class, so I have six classes. So the people at St. Rose actually give you this pretty-colored bag from the Christmas Tree Store. They have a little tag on them. I have one student go up and down the rows and assign everybody to bring something in. Then we bring it in on Friday, they go up and put the food into the basket and then I bring it to my church.”

Food insecurity is a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Hunger is an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.

According to a report by the Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Program, 42 percent of households that live below the poverty line are food insecure. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) describes ranges of severity of food insecurity, with the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) recommending a clear and explicit distinction between food insecurity and hunger. Food insecurity is a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Hunger is an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity. And while Baldinger admits her students are eager to do their part to help the less fortunate, the reality of who ends up being counted as being food insecure opens up new avenues in which to address the issue of hunger in America.

“My students are kind of excited to do something charitable. We talk about how it can’t be perishable and that it could go to a Massapequa family. Then it brings up a whole discussion that there might be a Massapequa family that might need it? And I tell them that yes, you never know that this could be the case. People lose their job. That’s how I started talking about stereotypes,” Baldinger explained. “The stereotype is that everybody in this town is rich. But you never know when someone could pass away. It really does bring up a good discussion in class. Like I say, I try to tie it into the lesson because in health class, we talk about your personality and how it affects your decisions and feeling good about yourself. They’re pretty into it. The biggest thing they can’t get over is that it’s not a basket. It’s ridiculous because it’s a bag. I tell them a basket is a little cumbersome and it’s easier to use a bag.”

The idea of anonymity for those in need of going to a food pantry is not lost on Jean Kelly, the executive director of the Interfaith Nutritional Network (The INN), a nonprofit organization that includes 14 soup kitchens on Long Island,
“[The poor and homeless often] get prejudged, judged and put away in a little box so they get out of [society’s] face so they don’t have to see them because it’s upsetting. And yet, it’s also inspiring if you’re looking at them from the right perspective because of their resilience and in awe of their ability to persevere and not give up,” Kelly said.

“Many of [our] volunteers are senior citizens and women. You could tell they all sensed that they were handing a plate of food to somebody that in outside circumstances, they would have crossed the street. All of a sudden, they were in this context and got to chat with them and realized these people were just like their nephew, cousin or next-door neighbor. He’s wearing a different costume and maybe has different color skin, but in the grand scheme of things, The INN has not only fed people, but brought people together of not only different faiths, but different backgrounds in a much more [potent] and humanitarian way. It’s just as powerful as feeding people.”

The breaking down of these kinds of stereotypes is something Baldinger feels is an important by-product in the moral lesson her students learn.
“You talk about the stereotypes that impede the way the kids go about their day. They grow up with them and then they just believe that they’re true,” she said. “You can lose your job in a second and while you might be living in a nice house, now you don’t have any cash. The big push in the school is social emotional learning, so I tie this into that, asking [the kids how] they feel when they donate. Even if it’s only a can of food that may cost only 60 cents or a dollar, they may still have money for lunch. So they admit that they do feel better when they give and get that feeling that they’re helping somebody.”


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In addition to being editor of Hicksville News and Massapequa Observer, Dave Gil de Rubio is a regular contributor to Long Island Weekly, specializing in music and sports features. He has won several awards for writing from Press Club of Long Island (PCLI).

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