Jennifer Wilson, a sixth grade teacher at Ironwood Elementary School, teaches the importance of kindness and empathy to her students and leads by example each and every day. For the past four years, Ms. Wilson has involved her classes in making and donating blankets to Youth On Their Own (YOTO) for the annual Spread the Warmth blanket and gift card drive. Ms. Wilson first heard about YOTO and the blanket drive from her mom’s bowling league. The league was collecting blankets and toiletries for YOTO and Ms. Wilson thought it would be a great idea to have her class donate blankets as well. However, instead of just asking her students and their families to buy blankets, she asked parents to donate fleece and had the students make them. It was important to Ms. Wilson that the students put some love into making the blankets. This year, with the help of Ms. Wilson and second grade teacher Rowena O’Haver, students from Ironwood Elementary School made and donated 16 blankets for youth experiencing homelessness in Pima County.

Spread the Warmth has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from YOTO students and alumni each year. In some cases, the blankets and gift cards are the only present they receive during the holidays, but it sends a message to these young people that their community supports and cares about them and that they are not alone.

Ms. Wilson says she hopes this blanket project teaches her students the importance of helping others and giving back. “We never know what others are going through and we need to help each other out.  I also talk with them about how these blankets go to other kids that don’t necessarily have what we have.  When they get a blanket that someone took the time to make, it makes those kids feel good.”

Ms. Wilson’s kindness and generosity over the years did not go unnoticed. She was recently nominated for a Ben’s Bells “Belling” by Kris Cohen, former YOTO board member and friend of Ms. Wilson’s mom through the bowling league. As most Tucson residents know, the mission of Ben’s Bells is to promote kindness throughout the community and to inspire people to practice kindness as a way of life. Each week, one deserving Tucsonan who is nominated for a “Belling” for an act of kindness is “Belled” or awarded with a special Ben’s Bell and a Ben’s Bells gift pack. On February 26, Ms. Wilson was officially “Belled” at her school by the Ben’s Bells team and YOTO Lead Program Coordinator, Diego Coronado, who thanked Ms. Wilson and her sixth grade class along with Ms. O’Haver and her second grade class for the blankets.

Ms. Wilson wanted to leave YOTO students with this message: “Our students at Ironwood LOVE you and wish you nothing but success in life. Continue to work hard and never hesitate to ask for help.”

Congratulations, Ms. Wilson! We could not think of a more deserving Ben’s Bell winner. Thank you for all you do for not only your students but for YOTO students as well!

Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez: from Flowing Wells High School to Ivy League Graduate, Wells Fargo Analyst, and TED Talk Speaker