RAYMOND — Students at Raymond-Knowles Elementary (RKS) are encouraged to help others as part of the school’s educational environment and drive to create, connect and compete. In order to graduate with honors from the K-8 school, 45 hours of community service are required over the course of 7th through 8th grades.
They’re almost always working on something to benefit others. Locally, for instance, RKS students participated in a Public Lands Day project at Eastman Lake, picking up trash for several hours as they concentrated on making the world a better place.
Taking their good work to a national level, junior high students at RKS organized a campaign this year, focused on helping young people get back to school in the wake of the tropical cyclone Hurricane Harvey, and sending donations to an adopted classroom in Texas.
Connecting the Raymond community internationally, one 8th grade student collected gently used children’s shoes to give away in her mother’s childhood neighborhood in Mexico. Erica Hafkey, 13, has accumulated a total of 72 community service hours to date, and that’s great. The best part, though, is something Erica and her classmates never anticipated.
Erica is the older daughter of Adriana Armenta and Mark Hafkey, and big sister to Eliana. Besides the RKS push toward philanthropy, Erica credits Raymond 4H for imparting the “giving” bug early on in life.
Erica’s mom Adriana is originally from the city of Hermosillo, in the Mexican state of Sonora. Her dad Mark is a flight attendant, with benefits that make regular travel between the foothills of Eastern Madera County and the town of Hermosilla possible.
Comparing parts of the United States with parts of Mexico, Erica noted similarities between people and places, as well as differences.
“I go to Mexico with my family and I see the poverty,” says Erica. “It’s really hot there, too, and I have seen kids and adults going to work and going to school barefoot! I asked my mom about that and she told me that shoes are really expensive there.”
Erica says the observation made her sad for those who had no shoes, and grateful that she does. Recognizing that the children and adults were tough enough to overcome most challenges, Erica was still surprised they were so short on shoes, burning their feet as they made their way to school. She learned that the costs for medical expenses, shelter, clothing, food and other necessities were rising in Mexico.
“I really like helping the community so I was talking to my mom about how I wanted to help people more and she brought up the idea that we could collect shoes. I thought that was a great idea.”
Flying back and forth from the United States to Mexico, Erica feels connected to both places, and wanted her friends and fellow community members in Raymond to feel the same way. She wanted to unite the communities and connect the locations she knew were perhaps far apart geographically, but very close together in her heart.
“With the help of my mom we made a flyer asking for shoes and put one up at school, one at the post office and one at the general store,” Erica explains.
They called the project, “No More Barefoot Children,” or in Spanish, No Mas Niños Descalzos, and requested donations of new and gently used shoes.
“My hopes, honestly, were not very high. I didn’t think that the community would see the flyers, and didn’t think we would get that many donations — but we got more than we could ever imagine.”
A collection box in the school office filled up quickly.
“People were telling me, ‘you need to go to the office, it’s swarming with shoes!’ And they were right there, two huge bags filled with shoes. I go to the General Store and they had two bags of shoes there. My mom was saying, ‘I knew this would happen.'”
Ultimately, they collected more than 100 pairs of shoes.
“I was just really happy to see it. I wasn’t expecting a price from it all, just the happiness and how we helped in general. And it wasn’t just me that helped, it was the whole community.”
Besides putting shoes on feet, Erica says the project really put a spring in her step when it comes to her perception of her Madera County town.
“I felt happy to be a part of the community because we are so much more than what people talk about, and I guess I was starting to feel sort of down about how people underestimate us. I just really wanted to help the kids and, at first, I just thought the Raymond community might not be able to do that because of all the things going on. But I was wrong! And I am happy that I was, because then it sort of showed me that the people who underestimate us were wrong — ultimately, very wrong.”
Now, having collected a wealth of shoes, it was time to pack up and take them to Mexico.
“We took the October break from school as an opportunity to go to Hermosillo, the main city of Sonora. We went to the barrio which is sort of downtown. It’s many neighborhoods all bunched together. It’s a poor neighborhood and my mom knows the people there because that’s where she grew up.”
It’s a place where everybody knows each other, says Erica.
“It’s really cool to see — when my mom and I are just walking down the street, somebody yells out her name and then they’re all hugging, and then their whole family comes out, and then my mom calls her family, and then we are all talking on the street.”
Arriving in Hermosillo in October, when temperatures are still high, Erica and her family hung out at the grandparents’ house for a while, until her mom stood up and said, “It’s time to go!”
Her mom is a woman with a plan. She grabbed their giant box of shoes and dumped them all in the back of the car where they could start sorting them out. Erica got in the car with her mom, her sister Eliana, and Aunt Lydia, who was driving.
“My mom starts yelling out the window to everyone, ‘If you want shoes…!’ And a ton of kids start coming up to the car and we open the trunk.”
They parked in the shade and handed out shoes to children who were too young to be at school.
“Then, right when school was out, people started recognizing our car and they would just come and be like, ‘Do you have shoes?’ And then all their families and all these kids came to the car, and they were just screaming and having fun. It was just really cool to see and we told them that we would come back in the summer and we would have more shoes, but this is the winter stock.”
One little boy about six years old was asking for boots, Erica recalls. She had one pair left, but didn’t think they would fit him.
“I still gave them to him, and asked him to try them on. He asked me if they were free and I said, ‘Yeah, they are free, no problem!’ And he starts running away with the shoes. He just sprints away, he was like, ‘Oh! They are free, I gotta get out of here before any of these other kids get them!’ I didn’t stop him because he was just so excited to get the shoes! Those shoes will go to good use — if they don’t fit him they will go to his brother or someone else.”
Another child, a girl about four years old, stayed with Erica the whole day.
“We gave her this pair of shoes and, for the rest of the time, she would just tug at my shirt and pose for me and show me the shoes. She would tell everyone, ‘These are mine, you can’t have my shoes.’ She was proud of those shoes.”
What does Erica remember most about the children and families that day?
“I laughed a lot. I laughed with them, I walked with them, I talked with them. It was even more cool to see that everybody knew each other, and they would say, ‘Oh yeah, we know you as guerita,’ because guerita means blonde hair. I am sort of the odd one out, because I am the American daughter and they know of me. Now, it’s really cool to get to know them.”
By day’s end, Erica was tired and happy with the results, but a little sad to see that it was over.
“I felt like we had so many shoes, but they were gone like that, and not everyone had a pair. So when I go there again, maybe I will take some shoes and whoever didn’t get a pair from the recent drop-off, we could pass them out. Definitely now they recognize us and we definitely recognize them and we help each other. When you do things like that you receive more than you give.”
Michelle Stevenson, Erica’s teacher, says she loves the opportunity to witness this kind, compassionate growth in her students.
“The immense pride I feel is overwhelming and exciting,” Mrs. Stevenson says. “Being able to see my students’ authentic selves is a pleasure. Erica is a strong leader and the other students in the class and school look up to her. She is encouraging and generous, which is contagious. The strength, courage, and pride the students exude is admirable, and the support the families and community offer is amazing and wonderful.
“I am honored to be a part of such an amazing school and community.”
One of the most wonderful things about the entire experience was how it helped to elevate the way that Erica and her classmates look at the bigger world and their own small town.
“We rose up,” she says now. “Raymond is the best, and I want to thank the Raymond community because they have shown me a lot and it’s just really cool.”