When Dorseyville Middle School teacher Scott Vensel traveled to Poland to study the Holocaust in 2002, an Auschwitz survivor made a lasting impression with just one comment.
“He told our group, ‘The seed of hate is the same no matter where it is sown.’
Since then, Vensel has made it her goal to pass that lesson on to her teenage students in the Fox Chapel Area School District.
Vensel sponsors the LIGHT Education Initiative, which began at DMS in 2019 with grants provided by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and the Grable Foundation.
Founded by Shaler Area teacher Nick Haberman, the club’s goal is to educate students to embrace tolerance and be honest in the hallways and beyond.
Programs and activities focus on social and environmental justice, kindness, volunteerism and humility.
“Hate is hate no matter how it occurs or transpires, whether in the hallways, on social media or otherwise,” Vensel said. “We hope the students will sow seeds of hope at school and in the community.
At DMS, there are 23 LIGHT Ambassadors from grades six through eight.
In November, the students launched a project that they believe would teach empathy and compassion at all levels.
They curated a collection for Second Harvest, a Sharpsburg thrift store that benefits people by selling clothing, household items, shoes and books at bargain prices.
Vensel said it fits perfectly with the club’s mission, which is to coordinate student-centered projects that benefit the community.
“Planning the project was super fun,” said Fenix student Goldberg. “We reached out to people in our community to donate things to people in need. It was fun giving things away to people who don’t have a lot of money to buy things for themselves, and it was exciting to do something for our community and to keep people happy.
DMS student Ma’Leah Brooks said she was proud of her classmates for a project that turned out to be “incredible”.
“It got people’s attention, and they ended up giving away a lot of items to those who are going through tough times in life,” Brooks said. “The Second Harvest store is where happiness comes for people.”
Since the club’s inception at DMS, more than 430 students have participated in the group’s Holocaust Remembrance Days. Many also joined last year’s Butterfly Project, a nationwide effort to teach about the Holocaust by painting ceramic butterflies. The goal is to eventually paint 1.5 million butterflies, one for every child killed in the Holocaust.
Vensel said he hopes to secure space at the DMS to provide more experiences for students in the district, as well as to accommodate students and teachers from across the region.
“During a time of such great need, it was great to see children and staff coming together to donate to Second Harvest with compassion and empathy for the community in the Fox Chapel area,” Vensel said. “As a coordinator, I was able to inspire them, prepare them and empower them to carry out their project and see it come to fruition.”
To learn more about the program, visit lightinitiative.org/