Carrying the torch

Michael Lehrhoff at the Capitol

by Michael Lehrhoff


In the 6th grade at my elementary school, Carlthorp School, I was the co-creator of a project with my peers called the San Bernardino Project.

It all started three years ago with our class reading a chapter of I Believe in Zero by Caryl M. Stern.  My teacher Mr. Marine wanted to dedicate a few days to teach us what poverty is and how it sometimes affects others around us as well as in places such as San Bernardino. After reading this book, my peers and I were inspired to do good in our community. My teacher also inspired our class with the idea of “carrying the torch.” He is referring to us, the new generation of adults, bringing change.

I was inspired. What happened to me was exactly what happened to all of the great do-ers: become inspired.

This was a brand new project at Carlthorp School, so over that weekend I dove head-first into the project and came out with a website. It was just an amateur build-your-own-site kind of website, but it was only one part of my way of “carrying the torch.” It was titled the San Bernardino Project.

That Sunday morning, I emailed my teachers about this website that I started. They were delighted to know that their teaching and educating was leading to the advancement of the greater good. That next day, I presented it to my peers. It had information about how to donate and help others in San Bernardino as well as what this early brewing project stood for and, at the top, this quote was written:

“Wars of nations are fought to change maps. But wars of poverty are fought to map change.” -Muhammad Ali

Soon, the San Bernardino Project was born. It was made up of motivated students in a supportive, community environment. We started with meetings every Tuesday and Thursday at 7:15 a.m. sharp. We got right to work identifying our problem: poverty. In hindsight, it was a pretty vague topic, but for the time being, we ran with it. The name: The Carlthorp School Poverty Council. Our teachers told us about an organization, Save the Children.
Little did I know that it would become a large part of my life.

One of the Save the Children representatives was part of the Carlthorp community and she spoke with the council about a leadership opportunity. In San Bernardino, she said, many low-income families were in need of schooling for their young children. Save the Children is associated with the Good Shepherd Preschool in San Bernardino. Save the Children taught us how pre-kindergarten education is crucial for brain development in the long run. She then proposed the idea of having a field trip at the end of the year to the pre-school.

A few weeks after our meeting, I was called into the principal’s office. Uncertainty went through my mind, did I do something wrong? Then was informed that I had been offered a scholarship to attend the Save the Children Youth Advocacy Summit because of the website I had created. Of course, I couldn’t pass up such an opportunity so I flew to Washington, D.C. and attended workshops and heard keynote speakers that taught me about leadership, children’s health and conditions around the world, and how we, as the new generation of adults, can make a difference. At the end, we had the opportunity to speak with Congressmen and women about why they should support the things that Save the Children stands for.

That was an event that I remember quite well because it reinforced the call to action to help those in need. The following week, the school poverty council sprung right back into action, coming up with ideas to raise awareness and to get donations. To raise awareness, we distributed small index cards to parents and students with information about our cause and a little about Save the Children. We also held a drive at the end of school for any supplies that we could donate to the Good Shepherd Preschool. The Poverty Council utilized the fact that the drive occurred at the end of the school year because all of the 6th graders didn’t need their pencils, crayons, and folders for middle school. As a result, we collected about three boxes full of school supplies for a class of 20 students.

Mr. Marine, my 6th grade teacher, was the one that would make an impact on my own life greater than anyone else. I used inspiration as my fuel and my heart as a guide to achieve where I am today. I have the courage to charge head-first into a problem and see what I come out with. I learned that by building a website in just one weekend. I have the leadership skills to build and create an entire board of hardworking, dedicated students. I have interacted with impoverished families to truly understand poverty in the real world. I have experienced first-hand the tremendous effects that just one person can have on the world. I have learned what it takes to do good in this far from perfect world and have been able to apply it to my everyday actions at my new school, Harvard-Westlake.

The analogy that Mr. Marine would use changed gradually. The first few days after reading the chapter on poverty in I Believe in Zero, Mr. Marine would ask me, “Who will carry the torch?” Then, a month into the project, he would say, “we are running with the torch.” Finally, he said to me, “we are in a dead sprint with the torch and there’s no stopping us!”

That’s the rush that this project brought and in the end, there was nothing stopping me from bringing about change.

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Michael Lehrhoff is a rising 9th grader in California. In 2014, he received a scholarship to attend Save the Children’s annual Advocacy Summit in Washington, D.C.