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Teachers pain is charitys gain
Students solicit donations for aid organizations
North Hall High freshmen Makayla Stover, center, and Amber Thompson hand a Miles of Smiles flyer Thursday to Lynn Watson, left, as parents line up in the parking lot at the end of the school day. Miles of Smiles is a service project by students to help raise money.

How to donate
To make a donation to Miles for Smiles or to find out more, contact Tessa Shirley at

The distractions of high school, including exams or the big game, make it a challenge for many teenagers to see beyond the school doors and to the problems people face in the world, Tessa Shirley said.

But the North Hall High School English teacher is engaging her students in a project that looks at some tough issues - such as sex trafficking and child soldiers in Uganda - and ways to help.

"I am trying to convince my teenagers that they can advocate for children even when they are still children themselves," Shirley said.

Over the past few months, 65 freshmen from Shirley's English classes researched topics including AIDS orphans in Africa and issues that face American teens, such as drug abuse. Once they completed their research, the class voted for aid organizations they wanted to help.

To raise money for the organizations, Shirley said she plans to run five half-marathons this school year. The teacher trains almost daily and has already run in the 13.1 Atlanta and the Athens Half marathons.

"This was something I was planning to do anyway," Shirley said, who has completed half-marathons in the past, and has been a regular jogger since high school. "And I thought I would really like to make my runs mean something."

Because North Hall has a goal of promoting global awareness as part of its International Baccalaureate program, Shirley decided to bring the idea to her classroom. And though Shirley will put in the physical work, she said the students were given ownership of the project.

The teenagers named the service project "Miles for Smiles" and are working to promote and find sponsors for their teacher's run. People can donate a dollar for each mile completed.

They decided the funds will be evenly distributed to Court Appointed Special Advocates, which advocates for abused children; Rahab's Rope, a ministry for victimized women; Invisible Children, a movement to stop the abduction of children for use as child soldiers; and Eagle Ranch, a home for at-risk youngsters.

"I think those issues hit home for them," Shirley said. "They saw these are kids my age who live in difficult circumstances and face challenges that are even life threatening. It enlightened them to know these kids were worrying about much bigger things than what to wear today or what's the latest iPhone."

Among their promotional ideas, students created a Facebook page and designed a logo. Thursday, they handed out flyers to drivers picking up students after school.
Mario Ramirez, 14, said learning about these topics has made him feel grateful. For his research, he looked at children in Mexico who don't have access to education.

"I'm happy I have the opportunity to go to school and a lot of people don't have that same access. Some people have to work to support their family," he said.

Gabriel Hoffman, 14, researched sex trafficking in the Atlanta area and said it was eye-opening to find out that some atrocities still exist in the modern world so close to home.

"There are issues in the world that are still in the world now," Bailey said. "I'm glad to have the opportunity to raise awareness. People don't take a lot of time out of the day to think about these things."

Shirley said the project will continue through the rest of the year. It is tied to the class curriculum and so far, students have written essays about their research and creatively defined the topics with video and poems.

With 65 students in the class, and 65.5 miles total to run for all five half-marathons, the number 65 is a major theme, Shirley said. The students' goal is to raise $6,550.

The next run is the Atlanta Half Marathon and Thanksgiving Day 5K. Shirley also hopes to complete the Walt Disney Half Marathon in Orlando and the Publix Half Marathon in March.

She said it is really important for students to learn the value of giving and serving, and she hopes the project can extend beyond this year.

"I'm just really proud of the kids for stepping up and taking initiative. I hope that this is just the beginning of them taking on their own projects and working toward making a difference," Shirley said.