The story of Project Compassion

Rev. Dr. Peter Edward Burch

Director, Project Compassion   
                                                                          August 2013

"I realized that Project Compassion was being claimed by history and weaved into the fabric of the national, even global, relief effort in Highlands, New Jersey.  My students and I were no longer merely absorbing the facts and truths of history in Room 256 at The Charles Finney School, we were being absorbed into history by serving others at Ground Zero of the second most destructive hurricane in American history." Rev. Dr. Peter Edward Burch                                                                                                          

In the summer of 2012, I was considering ways to make my history classes at The Charles Finney School (Penfield, New York) more interesting and meaningful.  My students were, of course, going to learn about the past; however, I also wanted them to impact the present and, in so doing, shape the future.  After all, the chance to impact the Stone Age is over, but the opportunity to impact the Modern Age is now—and it is necessary. I was optimistic about some of my ideas, but could not have imagined serving beside my students on five mission trips to help Highlands, New Jersey recover from one of history’s most devastating hurricanes.  Nor could I have imagined a day in June when Finney students delivered pasta dinners to suffering families.  One dinner to a family evicted from their home; a second to a father whose mother died; a third to a mother whose lost her son; a fourth to a wife who lost her husband; and the last to a family victimized by the Boston Marathon bombers.  Unimaginable in August 2012—yes—but not in August 2013, because I saw it all happen during the breathtaking first year of Project Compassion.  

Project Compassion               

In the course of my doctoral studies, I read over John Dewey’s philosophy of education.  Dewey, sometimes called the father of modern education, said, “The mere absorbing of facts and truths is so exclusively an individual affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness” (2013, p. 1).  I am passionate about history and love my students, but something vital was missing in my classroom.  My students were absorbing the facts and truths of history, but, as Dewey warned, they were drifting towards selfishness.  Writing about the “educative value” of history, Dewey exposed what was missing in my teaching:  “When taken simply as history it is thrown into the distant past and becomes dead and inert. Taken as the record of man’s social life and progress it becomes full of meaning.  I believe, however, that it cannot be so taken excepting as the child is also introduced directly into social life” (1973, p. 448, emphasis added).  I needed to connect my students, and myself, to the actual and touchable unfolding of history outside the classroom; until that happened, we would continue to abide in the self-orbiting and stupefying irrelevance of inconsequential memorization and bureaucratic testing.  So, inspired by Dewey’s insights and my Christian faith, I launched Project Compassion on the first day of school in September 2012.  Our goal was to not just learn about history, but to directly impact history through acts of compassion. Nature provided the opportunity to interject my history students “directly into social life” on the first day of school. Hurricane Isaac had just ravaged the Gulf Coast leaving behind over two billion dollars of wreckage.  After dispensing with the customary introductions and textbook distributions, I broke with custom and asked the students for some of their money.  As their facial expressions morphed into bewilderment, I announced, “Our first act of compassion will be a donation to the American Red Cross’ relief effort in the Gulf region.”  As a small, red bucket made its way from one perplexed student to the next, I shared one of the guiding principles of Project Compassion—doing something is greater than doing nothing.   Echoing Mother Teresa, one of history’s greatest leaders, I said, “If all you have is one penny, then give it, because it is not how much you give, it is how much love you put in the giving.”  We mailed off a check for $17.53 to the Red Cross—Act #1—Project Compassion at The Charles Finney School had begun.                                                                                                                  

Acts of Compassion             


 I designed a curriculum-anchored and compassion-oriented homework assignment that linked the past, present, and future.  First Step:  Study a section in the textbook and list out challenges faced by the ancient Egyptians (the past).  Second Step:  Go online and discover challenges confronting modern Egyptians (the present).  Third Step: Compare the two lists in class noting similarities and differences.  Fourth Step: Propose an act of compassion to directly address one of the challenges discovered (the future).  Fifth Step:  Put compassion into action.  One student learned about the plight of young Egyptian women forced to work or live in “Garbage City,” a wretched slum near Cairo.  On her recommendation, we donated $2 to Global Compassion’s outreach to the city.  Based on other students’ research, we supported UNICEF’s work in Syria; mailed a box of pens and pencils to a school in Uganda; and sent letters of encouragement to persecuted Christian pastors in Ethiopia.                                                                                                                            

Road Trip                

A desire to reach out locally resulted in Project Compassion’s first Road Trip.  The students proposed dozens of acts of compassion.  On a chilly Saturday morning in early spring, my mini-van was loaded with six students and donations for thirteen different organizations.  We delivered diapers to Compass Care; books to CDS Monarch; food to the Webster Community Chest; soup to Rochester Soup Kitchen; and toiletries to the Open Door Mission.  The Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester noted our visit in the spring edition of their newsletter—Voices of the Ribbon.  The Project Compassion team “had given careful thought to some small items that a woman diagnosed with breast cancer would find comforting and selected some cozy pink flannel pajamas and soft, thick socks to donate.  We will share them gladly and know that this lovely gift will be enjoyed and appreciated. … It’s all part of Finney’s goal to ‘Do Something Greater’” (Spring 2013).   The road trip was educational and a lot of fun; but more importantly, we were helping others help others and, in so doing, infusing the world with a measure of compassion that it would have otherwise been missing.  Our study of history was not drifting “into selfishness,” it was being imbued with meaning and relevance.  A freshman learned of the murder of a Rochester teen through a homework assignment.  She and her grandmother sewed a memorial quilt and presented it to the boy’s mother.  Another student approached me in class, “Dr. Burch, I am going to donate blood. Will you come with me?”  She was moved to this act of compassion after learning about the terrible amount of violence and bloodshed in the city of Rochester.  I accepted her invitation. During a unit on World War II, an act of compassion for a retired Marine brought history alive in a most memorable way.  We invited Mr. Ken Kampff to share his experience of battling the Japanese on the island of Iwo Jima.  After his soul-stirring talk, we led him to the door, cranked up the Marine Corps hymn, and watched him walk proudly down a hallway lined on both sides with flag waving and applauding students and teachers. The whole school had been invited.  At the end of hall, one of my students, wearing his Civil Air Patrol uniform, saluted Mr. Kampff, and read a proclamation. On this the twenty first day of December in the year of our Lord two thousand and twelve, The Charles Finney School and Project Compassion recognizes Corporal Kenneth Raymond Kampff for his most honorable and heroic service with the United States Marine Corps on the Island of Iwo Jima during the War in the Pacific.   Mr. Kampff and all of us watching were filled with emotion and “history” was no longer something static and typed on a page in a boring textbook; history was living in my class, and in the hallway, and in our hearts.  A teacher who was present sent me an email, “What an awesome tribute this morning!  That is learning at its finest. Thank you for doing this!”                                                                                                 

Disaster Relief Station              

In late October, Hurricane Sandy came ashore in the northeast.  Before Project Compassion had organized a response, another storm, this time a Nor’easter, growled up the coast bringing more wind, more rain, more flooding, more destruction.  We made contact with Mrs. Tara Ryan, a great leader who had just been elected to the town council in Highlands, New Jersey.  She invited us to come and see the damage and serve the needs of the refugees.  We sent out an email requesting items to help keep people warm in the regional refugee shelters.  Within a week, the front half of my classroom was filling up with blankets, sleeping bags, coats, gloves, hats, and scarves.  My students were now discussing history in a temporary disaster relief station.   By injecting ourselves “directly into social life” we had, in effect, invited history to make a claim on us, which it did, and the result was the transformation of a classroom into a temporary disaster relief station.                                                                                             

Absorbed Into History           

On Friday, November 9th, 2012, eleven willing servants met at Finney, prayed in the parking lot, and departed for ground zero of Hurricane Sandy.  Project Compassion’s first mission trip was to Highlands a town “almost obliterated” by Hurricane Sandy (Applebome, 2013, p. 1).   On the trip down, I said to one of the students, “You know this is what schooling should be like, right?”  His response was immediate, “Amen, Dr. Burch.”  After dropping the blankets off at Café Volan in Asbury Park, we drove to Highlands where Mayor Frank Nolan, his wife, and their four children were living in the refugee shelter.   Tara met us and prefaced our tour of the damage by saying, “When you see the mounds of debris, it’s the insides of people’s homes.”  Every home and business in downtown had been invaded by the Atlantic Ocean.  Some lost everything; some lost almost everything; everyone lost something.   A student remarked, “I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was this bad.”  Tara introduced us to Joseph Blewett, Chief of Police for Highlands.  “I lost everything I owned except for my truck and boat,” said the chief.  “Faith in God has helped a lot of people including me.”  As Tara rushed off to the next stop on her never stopping schedule, we caravanned to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church to help sort clothing, toiletries, and other desperately needed supplies donations arriving by the hour from up and down the east coast.   We met Valery who lost two homes but stepped in the day after the storm to lead the food distribution effort.  After the trip, one student remembered, “Everybody was helping each other out instead of doing their own thing.”  She was right and it was a beautiful to behold.  Our last stop was Jesus Fellowship Calvary Chapel where the basement had been transformed into a grocery store (except all the food was free).  Before departing for home, I promised Tara that we would return as soon as possible.                                                                                            

To Educate Is To Redeem             

And return we did, on Christmas Eve with a moving van packed with gifts from God.   Tara selected two families who, in the spirit of Christmas and to honor their privacy, we referred to as “Mary” and “Joseph”.   Our mission was clear:  replace what was lost.  After speaking with Mary and Joseph on the phone, I had two long Christmas lists.  Incidentally, Mary and Joseph knew each other.  One day, they were talking on the phone.  Mary shared, “I have some angels coming on Christmas Eve.”  To which Joseph replied, “I do too.”  It was the same angels—Project Compassion.  The email for help was sent out.   A disaster relief center again materialized in Room 256 and also in my garage.  In five weeks, we collected six complete bed sets (including linen and pillows), five dressers, two dining room tables, two microwaves, a couch, a refrigerator, two televisions, and stacks of smaller donations that we wrapped in the colors of Christmas and handed to Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve.  Sitting at her new dining room table and surrounded by gifts and eleven missionaries from a long way away, Mary was overwhelmed.  Holding back tears, she said, “Peter, when you reached out to me, I was amazed and shocked and crying.  Thank you all for coming and touching us. God does amazing things.”  My daughter, also my student, remarked, “Knowing that you care brings smiles to their faces and brings you pure joy and happiness.”  We were living out a core belief at the School of Education at Andrews—to educate is to redeem.  After lunch, we drove the truck to Joseph’s house to present God’s gifts and, once again, it was a glorious time and we had made another lasting friendship.             Since the Christmas trip, Project Compassion has returned to Highlands for three more times bringing household items, planting a garden, repairing a fence, picking up trash, repairing a store, helping demolish the boardwalk, and, most recently, helping two sisters prepare for school by providing backpacks stuffed with school supplies. The girls were very appreciative; however, we realized that school supplies do not exactly warm the heart of a teenager, so we also brought along a laptop, two bicycles, and two IPODs—all donated.  The girls were ecstatic!   In April, we served at Comcast Cares day where Mayor Nolan officially recognized Project Compassion at a ceremony attended by the Today Show, the CEO of Comcast, and New Jersey’s lieutenant governor.    

Councilwoman Ryan's Letter of Appreciation

"Just a few days after the destruction of Super Storm Sandy, while we were still reeling, the members of Project Compassion came to our town and started helping us put it all back together. Even more important than the hard work that the group completed, was the team’s good will, compassion, prayers, and the willingness to listen to each heart-broken resident they met went a long way in  helping Highlands recover. Dr. Burch and his team decided that they would help one family at a time, replacing destroyed personal belongings and household items. Then, they decided to do more, to actually work to re-build and renovate destroyed homes and a business. Five Highlands families have     benefited from the AMAZING work and dedication offered by Project Compassion. Actually, the entire town has benefited, since the positive actions of the team effect everyone who hears of the work they  have done.  I have personally benefited, by being shown the goodness and kindness that still exists in  this world, after my world was almost destroyed." Councilwoman Tara Ryan’s reflections reminded me of another observation of Dewey, “I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.  I believe that in this way the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God” (2010, p. 371).  

More Feedback

During our first year, Project Compassion has collected and delivered thousands of dollars of material and financial support to people in need and organizations meeting those needs.  I believe we have honorable represented one of our school’s core values—Compassion—by reaching out to those in need by offering both spiritual and tangible support in service, both locally and internationally. I was encouraged by a note I received from a Finney parent.  “To read throughout the past year all the acts of compassion has brought tears to my eyes several times. … Finney is blessed to have Project Compassion and a group of staff and students dedicated to blessing others.  A great example of showing love to one another and being Christ's hands extended.”  One of my students, a freshman who attended multiple mission trips, wrote, “Project Compassion has been a window into the lives of ordinary people who happen to be in a harder situation than I am in. I have enjoyed spending time with my friends on the missions trip, but most of all, I am thankful that I have learned that ANYONE can make a difference by doing something, after all doing something is better than doing nothing.”   Other feedback was likewise encouraging:  “It is such a wonderful, special, loving thing that you do.”   “So cool, you guys are such an amazing example to us all!”   “Thank you for doing the greater good.”  “What a blessing you are to so many!”   “What would Jesus do?  Probably exactly what was done by Project Compassion folks!”  “Project Compassion keeps faith alive in both the giver and the recipient.”   Project Compassion sends a huge THANK YOU to Pillar of Fire Ministries in Zarephath, New Jersey for provided great lodging for all the trips at very reasonable rates.  Apart from the compassion of Pillar of Fire, our ministry to Highlands might not have occurred.          I  started Project Compassion just hoping the outreach would make my history classes more interesting and meaningful.  So, I guess that was a monumental lack of faith.  So much for twenty-two years in the ministry.   God wanted to “do something greater” than improve my teaching strategies.  And He did.  God made Project Compassion into an amazing and ongoing mission beyond the classroom, beyond New York, and at times to the ends of earth.   To date, Project Compassion has completed five mission trips to Highlands, two road trips in Rochester, and 125 acts of compassion. As I write this article, the Project Compassion team is finalizing the fundraising to send the family of a soldier serving in Afghanistan to Darien Lake Theme Park for a day of fun.  Darien Lake donated five passes; a Finney family paid for the lodging; and a Saturday morning basketball group passed a hat and collected $66.30 to cover the gasoline expense.  Most certainly the words of Jesus are true, “It is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35).

A Parable

Let me end with a parable I wrote in an attempt to represent something I learned about serving God through Project Compassion.   A servant carrying gifts noticed an open door and, beyond, a person in need.The servant presented gifts to the person and everyone rejoiced.  As the servant departed, something unexpected happened—a new door opened and, behold, another person in need.  The servant walked through the door and presented gifts and everyone rejoiced.  Many years went by and the servant carrying gifts grew old, but the doors kept opening, and the servant kept presenting gifts, and great was the rejoicing, in heaven and on earth, because the servant never ran out of gifts people in need to give them to.