HARWICH – As a former educator, Dr. Donna Bender has always had a soft spot in her heart for young people, which is why, when she saw signs announcing the homes of seniors from Monomoy Regional High School, she was struck by all that the pandemic had taken from them. She decided to do something to lift their spirits.
“I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, but I am most happy if I do something for someone other than myself every day,” Bender said. “A little tiny something to give back a little to the force of humanity, of which I’m still a member.”
Bender, who makes her home on Long Pond, regularly walks her dog, Maisy, at Thompson’s Field. On the way, as well as during drives through other parts of Harwich, she kept seeing the navy-blue signs with the school logo celebrating Monomoy seniors.
“Every time I did it made me sad. It was like a punch in the gut,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is so wrong. These poor kids are vulnerable and are the recipient of this temperamental virus, about which we can do nothing.’ Their senior year, which should be filled with blossoms and sunshine, is filled with gloom. So, I said, ‘There must be something I can do that will make them feel better, and maybe at the same time impart a little lesson.’”
Drawing on her years as an educator, Bender decided on the book, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss.
“I thought of the book because I’ve loved it since my kids were young. I’ve used it in teaching. I’ve used it in counseling,” she said. “I’ve used it because I love it.”
Her motivation was simple.
“Education has been my life. I’ve taught every grade but third, college, and graduate school. I love kids. I love education, and I love doing something,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of challenges where I could just as easily have died as not, and as a result of that, I take life with a wonderful sense of gratitude every day.”
Bender, a cancer survivor whose family and friends started a scholarship in her name to benefit a Monomoy senior, knew that if she invested the time, she could likely find a copy of the book for every member of Monomoy’s Class of 2020. For weeks, she scoured an online secondhand bookstore looking for copies in good condition, eventually purchasing one for each Monomoy senior.
Next, Bender needed to secure permission to gift the books, which incoming Principal Jennifer Police gave with enthusiasm. The next step was figuring out how to get the books into the hands of seniors in keeping with school confidentiality guidelines. That’s where administrative assistant Betsy Casey came in, whom Bender said has become a dear friend.
Administrators asked Bender to bring the books to the high school with a written statement explaining her gift. The result was a special label that explained how the pandemic had negatively impacted both Bender and the seniors, and that the gift was a means of combating all that the virus had taken away, offering a tiny ray of sunshine.
The response, Bender said, has been amazing.
“The notes I have gotten from students have been fabulous. Even the boy students who are reluctant to write a thank-you note, they have just written the nicest, sweetest things,” Bender said. “It has done what I hoped it would do, which is affected students into reflecting on the fact that they, too, are capable of doing some small gesture that may have a very positive ripple effect.”
Bender said the cards, letters and emails have been heartfelt, often expressing gratitude at being reunited with a cherished childhood book, as well as thankfulness at the gesture of kindness. One student wrote that they would be using the book as a reminder of the importance of determination and optimism.
If Bender could choose one message for the students to take from the book, it’s that everyone matters.
“You don’t have to have something in common with someone. You can make something in common with someone if you’ve got the right perspective,” she said.
“Somebody asked me, ‘Why did you do it?’ And I said, ‘Because I can.’ What’s better than trying to bring some well-deserving senior to a point of gladness? If you can control one thing that ends up helping someone else, it’s a gift in itself.”