'KIND' Derry Area teacher receives award for program that provides necessities for kids
All teachers know their students, no matter how intelligent or enthusiastic, cannot thrive if their stomachs are empty, if they don't have tennis shoes for gym class, or if they lack a lab or field-trip fee.
The best educators come up with creative ways to help meet those needs.
Derry Area High School learning support teacher David McCleary recently was recognized as one of the best, receiving the American Red Cross of Southwestern Pennsylvania's Educator Hero Award.
McCleary helped to start the KIND (Kids In Need in Derry) program. In addition to subsidizing year-round closets with clothes and school supplies, program participants raise funds for specific needs students may have.
A New Alexandria resident and graduate of Greater Latrobe High School, McCleary, 49, almost didn't become a teacher.
Originally a criminology major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, he took a semester off and held odd jobs, including as a house painter and a church custodian.
He had volunteered with Special Olympics while in high school, and an acquaintance suggested he might enjoy a career in special education.
“It was a good decision. I don't usually say I go to work. I go to school,” McCleary said.
He's spent 26 years at Derry, all at the high school level.
“You see them come in as ninth-grade kids and leave as 18-year-old adults. You get to see them progress,” he said of the students.
During a faculty meeting several years ago, building principal Kathy Perry mentioned that several seniors could not afford to pay their commencement cap and gown fees.
“You could see people reaching into their pockets,” McCleary said.
Realization that a need of that level existed in the district was eye-opening, he said.
“It's a free and public education, but a lot of things come up that cost for students,” McCleary said.
The Derry Area School District Foundation took KIND under its wing, he said, granting the program nonprofit status.
Student needs met through fundraising are as wide-ranging as work boots for a vocational technical class to gym shoes or a musical instrument.
“We are a small enough school that we are pretty cognizant of who is in need,” McCleary said.
KIND closets are in the high school and middle school.
“We are working on one at Grandview Elementary,” he said.
What started out with a collection of coats has blossomed.
“We realized that if students don't have coats, they might not have boots or gloves or scarves,” McCleary said.
“People give their time, energy, talent — secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers all pitch in with sorting and delivery,” he said.
Area residents drop off clothing or monetary donations.
With McCleary's help, the district arranges fundraisers to buy Christmas boxes for needy area families.
“Lots of kids get two of three daily meals here,” he said.
Students clamor to volunteer at the Derry Area Food Bank, where he takes a group each month.
“We've had kids say, ‘I had no idea,' or ‘I've been on the other side of the table; I know what it's like,' ” McCleary said.
Perry said she immediately thought of McCleary for the educator category of the Red Cross Heroes program.
In her nominating letter, she cited his spearheading of KIND, his role as high school coordinator of student community service and his “Voice of Derry” emceeing skills at numerous district events.
“He has been an inspiration to our students, staff and local community that has gone unnoticed for years. He is a great staff member (who) puts the kids first,” Perry wrote.
McCleary, whom Perry also described as “humble,” brushed off any “hero” status.
“It's dozens and dozens of people,” he said.
Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or firstname.lastname@example.org.