Teaching kids, touching lives

Instructional assistant to receive state award for helping increase minority achievement


Some fifth-graders at Havre de Grace Elementary School lacked equipment for a four-day overnight school trip, such as sleeping bags, hiking boots and rain gear.

When Mary Sampson heard about pupils' problem, she approached local businesses and persuaded them to donate the needed items.

Sampson, an instructional assistant at the school, has started two book clubs and a mentoring program for pupils.

She also is the family liaison, a role in which she works to get parents involved with their children's education.

So no one at the school was surprised when Sampson received the Excellence for Minority Achievement Award from the Maryland State Department of Education.

Established in 2000, the award is given to educators or community members in each county who help increase achievement among minority children.

Sampson, who attended Havre de Grace Elementary as a child and then began working there 23 years ago as an instructional assistant, was nominated for the award by Joyce Stevenson, the principal of the school.

"Mary Sampson is a one-of-a-kind person," said Stevenson, who has worked with Sampson for about four years. "She knows every student in the school by name, and she has touched many of their lives."

The Havre de Grace resident will be honored during a ceremony at Martin's West in Baltimore on Friday.

Sampson's impact on others is not limited to the school setting.

Recently, Sampson took a carload of groceries and Easter baskets to the home of a grandmother who is caring for her eight grandchildren, three of whom attend the school.

She also helped a family displaced by a fire get clothing and furniture by rallying the staff at the school and her church congregation.

"The family was homeless for a while, but when they got a house, my sons and I went and delivered everything we could get for them," said Sampson, 62, who raised five children and has eight grandchildren.

At the school, the programs Sampson has started serve more than 150 pupils.

When she began working as the family liaison at Havre de Grace seven years ago, she wanted to start programs to get parents involved in their children's education.

Six years ago, she started "Read With Me," a book club for children in preschool through third grade.

About 100 pupils, each of whom participates with a parent or caregiver, meet once a week during breakfast or lunch at the school. They select a book that is given to them for their home library. They read the book together and then complete activities outlined on a lesson plan Sampson created.

The books are purchased with money Sampson solicited from area businesses. Each week the children receive a new book and activity sheet.

Rowena Jacobs said Sampson's program has made a significant difference for her son, Keith Jacobs, a first-grader who is autistic.

"This program has increased his interest in reading," said Jacobs. "He comes in here and we select a book and when we get home he looks for the book and expects to read it. He loves books."

The program has also helped to improve Keith's schoolwork, she said.

"He's reading better and his sentence structure is improving," said Jacobs. "He's autistic and doesn't like crowds. But he can handle it in here. And I know that it's this interaction with people that's helping him so much."

Once the first book club took off, Sampson responded to parent requests for a book club aimed at fourth- and fifth-graders. About 20 families attend one session per week before or after school. They read designated chapters of books supplied by Sampson in advance, then have a group discussion.

Perhaps the most popular of her initiatives is Team 2000, a program Sampson started in 1996 for pupils who need extra assistance with academic, behavior or social issues. Each child works with a mentor who is either a member of the school staff or the community.

Eight-year-old V'ondra Olivaria started in the program this year.

"When I'm in class, I don't always understand my homework and when I come to her, she helps me do it right," V'ondra said. "And when I do something I shouldn't, she tells me the right way and doesn't get mad at me."

The mentors meet with the children once a week to play games, chat, and serve as role models.

Ralph Sparling, an 85-year-old Havre de Grace resident, became a mentor in November and he said he's taken by the difference the program makes with the children.

"One boy started out responding to every question with one word or nothing," Sparling said. "Now he comes in here, and he talks all the time. Miss Sampson's program makes a big difference with these kids because she really cares about them."

Sampson's efforts to reach out and help others beyond the school setting isn't limited to the nearby community.

For the past decade, she has traveled to a small village of about 5,000 people in Moldavia in Eastern Europe to offer humanitarian aid. Her efforts there include setting up teams to give children character education. Sampson also has delivered money, medicine, eyeglasses, books, blankets and clothing to the village.

"When I first went 10 years ago, the children had horrible health and living conditions, and it feels good to go back and see them healthy," Sampson said.

While she said she sometimes feels pulled between helping the children in Havre de Grace and those in Moldavia, she's postponed her retirement for a year to see through the implementation of a new reading room.

But if Stevenson has any say, Sampson will be at the school well past that.

"We could never replace a Mary Sampson," she said.

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