By Aaron Blevins, 12/06/2012
Tragedy becomes inspiration for school projects
There is a dark cloud hanging over the head of Matthew Badger, and like most people seeking solace in a time of tragedy, he is looking for the silver lining in his time of unfathomable adversity.
Badger’s daughters — 9-year-old Lily and 7-year-old twins Sarah and Grace — died in a house fire last Christmas in Stamford, Conn. Their grandparents were also killed in the morning blaze.
Badger’s cloud hovered over Hancock Park Elementary School last week, and while the fallout from the house fire looms, a bright side shined light on fourth-grade students creating their own culture museum, a project that, like many others, is helping Badger heal.
“I couldn’t go back to my old life,” he said. “I couldn’t go back to directing commercials, because it meant nothing to me. Everything I had was taken from me. Why was I going to make TV commercials? What for? I used to make TV commercials so that — it was about my girls, and making sure they had the best future in front of them.”
Recovering from such a tragedy could take a lifetime, but Badger somehow began taking his first steps within a year, creating the LilySarahGrace Fund to support arts-related school projects. He said his daughters — like all children — were very creative.
“As long as I’m working to make sure that they have made some kind of mark on the planet and done something, then I feel like I’m doing the right thing with my life,” Badger said.
Enter Debbie Glass’ fourth-grade class, where Badger’s found respite, his pain replaced with the students’ enthusiasm for learning about the Chumash, a Native American tribe that once roamed Southern California.
The LilySarahGrace Fund has committed $750 to the cultural project, which Glass has been developing her entire career. It’s a multi-disciplinary project, incorporating math, science, art, social studies and English — exactly the kind of class work that the fund looks for.
Dubbed the National Museum of Culture West, the room has several exhibits under construction that display examples of the Chumash way of life. The exhibits are decorated with construction paper, student-made baskets and clay items.
Ben Alvarado, 9, was enlightening his peers on the history of the Chumash’s “technology.” He said the Chumash did not make pottery, but used soapstone for its pipes and stone bowls. They utilized the yucca plant for their products, and also resided near the Santa Barbara Channel, Ben explained.
“They lived near our city and they made a lot of amazing things, such as baskets,” he said, adding that the Chumash were known for their cave paintings.
Jessica Haserdene, 9, had the scoop on the tribe’s social life. They lived in clans, she said, and one person from each clan was selected by the Chumash government to be a leader. They could be male or female, and were allowed to have more than one spouse, Jessica said.
The Native American tribe also had doctors, singers, astrologers, dancers and religious leaders called shaman, who could talk to the spirits, she said. There were seven different kinds of shamans.
“The shamans believed that disease came from a sick person’s spiritual state so they tried healing the spirit with dances, songs and prayers,” Jessica said matter-of-factly, adding that she enjoyed learning about the Chumash. “The thing that’s interesting is their baskets and their tools and what they eat. And also their houses.”
In between their work on the projects, the students also had an opportunity to meet Badger, who was compiling interviews from students, Glass, parents and principal Ashley Parker for a short film about the project.
“Have you guys enjoyed having Matt and [his girlfriend] Abby here? Has it been pretty amazing? It’s something you’ll always remember, right?” Glass asked the students, receiving an empathic “yes” to each.
She said the students have been working on the museum since August, and the class is working to create a virtual edition of the museum. The project has been all-encompassing of the fourth-grade curriculum, as evidenced by the flashlights the students created (science) to show their displays and the perimeter and area outlines on the floor (math) that determined how big the students’ exhibits would be.
“They love it,” Glass said. “It is such a natural way to learn. When they learn about something, they can go out and do it.”
She would have liked for the students to have more time researching the Chumash, but they’ve tackled some questions that require deep thought, such as ethical questions regarding the treatment of Native Americans by settlers in America.
“It’s been a remarkable experience for me,” Glass said. “It’s been a wonderful thing.”
She learned of the LilySarahGrace Fund through DonorsChoose.org, but she had to convince herself to read the entirety of the fund’s tragic background.
“I made myself read it,” Glass added. “I can barely talk about it. It’s so incredible what they have done with their pain and what they’ve given to so many children. …It’s a heart-wrenching story, but to take their tragedy and give us this gift, I don’t even know how to thank them.”
Badger said he realizes that various departments of education have, through their budget decisions, determined that art is not necessarily essential to students’ education, which he thoroughly disagrees with.
He said the fund seeks teachers looking to implement project-based learning, and thus far, Lily, Sarah and Grace have helped dole out $435,000 to schools within the fund’s nine-state tour.
“I think this kind of teaching is fantastic,” Badger said. “They create everything themselves and they ask questions. …We want to be kind of like a champion of this kind of education.”
The LilySarahGrace Fund receives donations from various fundraisers, such as an art fair held in Pasadena last weekend. It also got a big boost from an event in New York City that prompted appearances by Whoopi Goldberg and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Its efforts are obviously mutually beneficial, as Badger said he gets to meet “fantastic” teachers like Glass and “brilliant” principals like Parker. He said its been therapeutic and has sidelined his feelings of despair.
“On this tour, it’s gone,” he added. “It’s gone.”
For information or to donate, visit www.lilysarahgracefund.org.