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Rebecca Rider: Hidden treasures

Rowan County is hiding a secret — a treasure. It’s not one you can find with a map or that’s located by a large, bold X marking the spot. Instead, it’s hiding in plain sight. I found it by asking a question.

Sometimes, interviews can feel like asking — or answering — a series of riddles that will open a path to a better story. I look for something beyond the surface, trying to discover the hidden heart. But sometimes, the answers to simple questions lead to unexpected places.

In this case, it was a rote question — something I ask when interviewing new principals or casually ask teachers out of curiosity. What do you think makes your school unique?

It doesn’t matter who I ask, the answer is always the same: the community.

Newcomers are surprised by the giving nature of parents, businesses and philanthropists. Natives know the wealth of giving that’s here and are filled with gratitude. And while I haven’t traveled as much as some, I’ve been enough places to say that I’ve never seen such an outpouring of love and compassion stitching a community together.

But that’s the surface. Here’s the secret: Schools are a reflection of their communities; the real treasure lies not outside school walls but within them.

The students in Rowan County — whether they ride a bus to class every day or learn lessons around the kitchen table — are incredibly giving and compassionate. And it’s in a way I don’t remember from my own school days. These aren’t nameless, faceless holiday canned food drives; they are intensely personal acts of charity.

These students are not only aware of the problems and hardships within their own community, but they recognize the ways these issues touch their own lives, and they can name someone who’s affected by them. And so, when they step out to help or to correct an injustice, it’s these people they have in mind.

It brings a warmth and a passion to fundraisers, food drives and coin collection that I’ve not seen before.

They throw themselves into these events, planning, taking ownership, donating their own hard-earned money and giving as much of themselves as they can spare — because they know someone who was affected.

It’s students raising money for hurricane victims that include their own family. It’s students filling backpacks with food for their classmates. It’s students reaching out in kindness and compassion to younger children who may be lonely. It’s students raising money for breast cancer in honor of a beloved staff member.

And I see this in every school. Whether it’s the public schools rallying around a districtwide drive or students at private schools digging into their own piggy banks to pay for, and then pack, thousands of meals or home school and college students volunteering their time.

Even when there’s not a personal connection, I’ve found that students are thinking critically about how they would feel if they were in a position of difficulty. They research the issue and become true good Samaritans. It’s a mindset of incredible value and rarity.

In the past year and a half, I can’t count the number of times I’ve interviewed students like these. And each time, I feel as though I’ve stumbled across the greatest treasure in the world.

Lord knows, Rowan County is not without its problems, its controversies and its struggles. But I’ll say it again: Schools are a reflection of their communities. And when I talk to these students, I know that somewhere there’s something we’re doing right.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.

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