Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Stepping Up.”
The student stood at the screen door, thrilled to see her teacher visiting her at home.
But the teacher, Chelsea Gabzdyl, could only go as far as the front steps. No close contact. No hugs. No passing anything directly to the first grader or her family. Just a short chat before she left a math book for the girl and face masks for everyone.
“The student’s mom was afraid to go outside,” said Gabzdyl, a first grade teacher at Concord International Elementary School in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood, “and I thought, maybe if they had masks they could at least go for a walk.”
The front-door delivery was an extension of “Maslow’s Closet,” a program Gabzdyl started in her classroom when she joined Concord Elementary two years ago.
The program started by offering her class school supplies and food. Now, in the time of the coronavirus and stay-home orders, it has expanded from meeting students’ needs to those of others hunkering down in their homes.
“They are asking for things for the whole family,” Gabzdyl said, “and that’s my goal, because I try to think about the village that raises every child. And even if it’s a cousin who doesn’t go to our school, we take care of them, too.
“And that feels really good.”
Gabzdyl grew up in West Seattle, the daughter of a single mother who was a nurse practitioner, and who knew struggle. It was her mother who first told her about American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s 1943 theory on what humans need to be motivated, and to succeed: Safety, love and belonging, and social and self-actualization.
“When I would try to process student behavior, my mother would say, ‘Think of Maslow. Do they have their basic needs met?’ And most of the time, they did not. And it is more difficult for children to learn if their basic needs — food, clothing, air and shelter — are not met.”
So she connected with online nonprofit Donors Choose, which allowed her to create a classroom website where individuals and businesses could donate funds and goods — everything from school supplies to food and clothing to household needs. She called it Maslow’s Closet.
She sent students home with a form, asking parents to fill out what their kids needed to succeed, and what their families needed to manage. She didn’t want to make those decisions for them.
“I struggled with what the kids might need,” she said. “I had been thinking about my privilege and didn’t want to be the one determining what people of a population need. So I sent the form home and families can fill it out.
“If they need something, cool. If not, that’s OK.”
As soon as Gabzdyl learned Seattle schools were closing due to the coronavirus, she and her mother, Elizabeth, had 15 minutes to move the contents of Maslow’s Closet to their cars, then to a spare room in Elizabeth’s home. She sent parents a picture of the request form, letting them know what is available and offering to drop it off at students’ homes or at the school, where some students still receive free lunches.
“We’re saying that we have all these items and if it’s something your family needs, we can drop them off,” Gabzdyl said.
The response was immediate, with parents making requests for their students, their other children — and themselves. Clothing, personal hygiene items, cleaning supplies.
Kae Saechao’s 7-year-old daughter, Amyah, is one of Gabzdyl’s students. She has two other children with her husband, who is the sole provider for the family. So when the offer came for goods from Maslow’s Closet, Saechao accepted.
“I am looking at all these things and I am like, ‘Wow,’ ” Saechao said. She requested clothes for her daughter — pants and tops, socks and underwear.
When the coronavirus closed the school, Saechao requested food and snacks for her kids, and some disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer for the family. She also told Gabzdyl about a friend, a single mom who was battling cancer and needed help. The teacher — a cancer survivor — sent along some supplies, and offered support.
“Not only is she a teacher, she goes above and beyond to help her community,” Saechao said. “And I am so grateful for her. She just wants to help in any way.”
Indeed, Gabzdyl is doing this in addition to meeting with her students online — math and reading lessons twice a week, and a weekly class meeting — and meetings with other first grade teachers. The other day, she taught 10 students over Zoom, the online meeting program.
“We want to make sure that we balance holding our students accountable, but also recognizing that I am not reaching every one of my students,” she said. “I am making things up as I go along and hope that some of it will stick.”
Five of her 18 students don’t have online access. At least one has access to technology, she said, but there are six kids in the house, some of them older who have been assigned papers and projects. The younger ones have to fight for time.
On Monday, Amazon announced it was donating 8,200 laptops to help Seattle Public Schools elementary-school students who don’t have a device, but Gabzdyl doesn’t know if her students will benefit.
So she is working with a donor to get her students more supplies — but only if they need and want them.
“I am on the fence because I don’t want to push,” she said. “It is tricky.”
The idea may have been inspired by Maslow, but it is also fueled by Gabzdyl’s childhood as the daughter of a single, working mother.
“Since I started teaching, I always wanted to be what I needed,” she said. “I really try to remember those moments, and that motivates me to continue.
“If it’s a teacher who sits quietly with a teacher having a hard time, or what my mom needed when she was younger … I try to put myself in these kids’ places,” she said. “No one deserves to be without what they need.”
Even if it means staying 6 feet apart from a 6-year-old.
“I felt so much joy hearing ‘Miss G!’ through the screen door,” Gabzdyl said. “I had to say, ‘No honey, we need to stay apart so we can stay safe.’
“I miss them so much.”