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Sweat Equity Offers Hands-on Life Lessons

District 225 students spend part of their summer building homes for needy families.

Hammering nails to build a home for one needy family in Lexington, KY, during the summer, junior David Woo learned first hand what it means to give back to society.

“I’ve got to say, it was a life-changing experience,” said Woo, who traveled to Lexington as part of District 225’s summer school program to help Habitat for Humanity rebuild houses.

Woo's most meaningful experience was meeting the family who would receive the home that he helped build.

“The family we helped was a mother and three kids whose husband had abandoned them,” he said. “I had a lot of questions.”

After talking with the mother, Woo found out she had been the sole provider for her children for the last five years.

“I realized then how important it was and how big of a deal it was that we build this house for them,” the teenager said.

Woo was one of 80 students who participated in the summer program, which was established nearly six years ago by math teacher Mark Gallagher.

Along with other staff members, Gallagher was inspired to bring the program to the district after he saw the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in 2005.

“We were sitting around racking our brains, trying to figure out how to give back [other than a usual supply drive],” he said.   “We knew that there was so much we could possibly do.”

After some extensive research and brainstorming, Gallagher stumbled upon the Collegiate Challenge through Habitat for Humanity, whose program allows high school juniors and seniors to volunteer in assisting to build homes for families in need during school breaks.

That first year, 16 district students in addition to chaperones traveled to Katrina-ravaged territory in Mississippi to help rebuild homes.

“It was one of the most moving experiences any of us had ever had,” Gallagher said. “The learning that goes on on these trips is incredible.”

It didn’t take much to persuade district officials and school board members to turn such trips into an actual educational program. In order to participate, a student must be in good academic standing and receive a letter of recommendation from a teacher.

The program and coursework are a big draw, filling to capacity every year.

“Without the support of great staff at both schools and the district superintendent and school board, this would never have happened,” Gallagher said. “It’s a win-win.”

The program is meaningful not just for students but teachers as well. 

“It really recharges me as a teacher when I hear what they get out of it,” said chemistry teacher Nicole Scherr, who chaperoned one of the student groups this summer. “It is just so rewarding.”

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