When Rancho Middle School Art Teacher Jim Coulson played the film “Pay It Forward” (2000) for his homeroom class to watch, he couldn’t have possibly imagined the sparks it would set off…

Based on a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, “Pay it Forward” centers on a young kid who, inspired by his social studies teacher, comes up with the idea of responding to the good deeds that are done to you by doing favors for three other people, thus setting off a wave of transformation. 

Inspired by the film, Coulson’s class, which is comprised of 22 7th graders, decided to do something of their own that would make an impact in the world… 

For three weeks in October, the class poured effort into raising money for the victims of natural fire disasters in California.

“There’s always something happening where people are in need,” said Coulson. “And with the fires happening in California, it doesn’t look like it will get any better. So we talked about it. And they said, ‘Let’s raise money for the American Red Cross’, since they’re out there doing the best they can to help this situation.” 

Armed with a large bucket and a desire to do something meaningful, Coulson’s students went around to all of the morning’s advisory classes and spread the word about what they were doing; they even spent time during their breaks and lunch periods looking for donations.  

As a result of their efforts, this past Friday, December 14, the students proudly presented a check of $802 to American Red Cross Board Member Tami Cabaniss, who was ecstatic to receive it. 

Tami Cabaniss (L) receiving the check, with Art Teacher Jim Coulson (R);
Photo credit: Shannon Carr, Milpitas Unified School District

“Thank you so much for doing this,” Cabaniss told the students. “I can’t tell you how much it means to the people who were impacted. Just so you get a good sense of the number of people impacted by this…This Butte County Camp Fire was one of the deadliest wildfires in history. It destroyed over 13,970 residences.” 

Cabaniss went on to specify how the money they’d donated would be used: providing financial aid to those impacted by the fire, helping with shelter, food, clothes, and other resources. She also spoke of the importance of fire safety in the home.  

Coulson, who’s in his 19th year teaching Art at Rancho, exudes a kind of joy and energy that’s refreshing to behold. The value of what he does — the teaching and wisdom that he imparts upon all his students — is wildly apparent. At the end of the day, Coulson knows just how important it is for his students to find what lights them up. 

“I tell them the reason you’re at school is that. And they look at me, and go, ‘What is that?’ I tell them, you have to figure that out…What’s that one thing you’re passionate about? That you wake up in the morning and you’re so excited to get to wherever you’re going, instead of going to a place and looking at the clock and saying, ‘I only have 2 hours left to go…'” said Coulson. “What are you really passionate about?”  

Rhoda Shapiro
Rhoda Shapiro works as a journalist and media consultant in the Bay Area. She has written for both the Tri-City Voice and the Mercury News, and is the founder of Chi Media Company, which works with nonprofit organizations to elevate their marketing and communication platforms. Rhoda is also an author; her first book will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in mid-2019. Her YouTube channel, which features practices in yoga, meditation, and women’s empowerment, has amassed thousands of subscribers. Rhoda is The Milpitas Beat’s founder.

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