Tag Archives: empathy

Elizabeth Byrnes

November 20, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…Toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

-Elizabeth Byrnes

Tucked away in a discreet supply room at Ralston High School, beyond the steel lockers and crowded classrooms, Elizabeth Byrnes is stocking nonperishable goods.

While classmates hurry to first period at 7:30 a.m., Byrnes shuffles paperwork, counts inventory, coordinates volunteer shifts, and organizes pick-ups and drop-offs for the school’s food pantry.

Byrnes is not your typical teenager. Sure, she’s a 17-year-old cheerleader who gabs on a smartphone and loves to shop at American Eagle. But this 5-foot-6-inch brown-eyed beauty takes her community service seriously.

So when she saw a sign last year advertising the school’s free food pantry, titled the R-Pantry, Byrnes decided to check it out.

“I didn’t know it was needed,” she says.

On that particular day, she visited the small closet of a lecture room where teachers had been operating a makeshift pantry that allowed students in need to shop anonymously for food, toiletries, and other supplies inside the high school.

Roughly 60 percent of students at Ralston Public Schools receive free or reduced-rate meals.

To create a healthy pantry, teacher Dan Boster says the Ralston High staff noticed the need and donated nonperishable items and the seed money—roughly $800 worth—in exchange for casual dress days.

“Once the pantry was created, we handed it off to the students,” says Boster, who also serves as National Honor Society adviser and oversees the pantry project.

Byrnes acquired the larder responsibility and has helped it evolve from the small closet of a lecture hall into a spacious supply room with large tower shelves brimming with food as diverse as artichoke hearts, fruit snacks, and granola bars.

Byrnes has grown the one-person operation to having 70 volunteers on deck to assist when needed. She has presented before the Ralston Chamber of Commerce when soliciting for donations and has advocated and made Ralston High an official Food Bank of the Heartland donation site.

She describes the families who utilize the pantry as living break-even lifestyles, existing paycheck-to-paycheck, with little left over for simple luxuries such as lip balm or toilet paper. Students from such families experience a lot of stress and anxiety over where their next meal is coming from, she adds.

“I saw how education is extremely difficult to get, especially if there’s a need in the household,” Byrnes says. “Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

Food insecurity—which means that people lack access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle—can be invisible, she explains. “Not knowing if there will be dinner on Friday night or lunch on Saturday.”

The R-Pantry idea is a positive response to a really challenging situation: student hunger. It is not the ultimate solution, but it is a start.

“I have so much respect and admiration for these students who are asking for help to support their

Byrnes excels in calculus, biology, and creative writing. She serves on DECA, is a class officer, and participates in National Honors Society. She enjoys running, hiking, and playing with her two dogs—Sophia and Jack.

Byrnes credits her family for always influencing her to do what’s best and help those in need. Dad (Robert E. Byrnes) is a doctor. Mom (Mary Byrnes) is a mortgage banker. Brother (Kent Keller) is a police officer.

“Her empathy for people runs very deep,” her mother says.

However, the driven teen doesn’t always communicate well with mom and dad, jokes her mother: “She was never one to seek glory. We didn’t know how involved she had been in the pantry until she was recognized. When she made homecoming court, we didn’t know about it until people began congratulating us.”

Mom adds, “She moves through life as if this is just a job. Helping others is just what she does.”

Byrnes plans to attend a four-year university next year and major in biology. She’d like to someday become a cosmetic dentist or dermatologist.

Byrnes encourages other young people: “If you see something you could change or help out, don’t be afraid to jump in there. You could change someone’s life with your one small action.”

The R-Pantry at Ralston High School (8969 Park Drive), is open on Fridays after school until 4 p.m. To volunteer, contact the school at 402-331-7373.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.

At the Heart of St. Matthew

November 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“When I see a student no longer having to struggle to read or do a math problem—that is why I teach. They take so much pride in them-selves when they become independent in their thinking.”

-Lisa Benson

As a young Girl Scout in Texas, a lightbulb went off when Lisa Benson’s troop adopted a special needs class during her middle school years. She knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. That connection to those students made her realize that her future place in life was in a classroom. She held on to that joy of helping others when she attended Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and majored in elementary education. She dedicated her education further by continuing on for her master’s degree in literacy from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Now, at 58 years old and with over 20 years of teaching experience, Lisa Benson was recently honored as one of the Educators of the Year in the elementary category by the Archdiocese of Omaha at the Archbishop’s Dinner for Education on Sept. 29, 2016.

Nominated by the principal, staff, and community of St. Matthew Catholic School, where she has taught first grade for the past 14 years, Benson was just as shocked as she was thrilled to receive the award: “I was so surprised. I feel I have always given my best to St. Matthew School, my students, and their families. It is such an honor to be recognized for hard work and dedication. I truly appreciate all the support from the archdiocese, my fellow teachers, and the families at St. Matthew.”

It’s that heart and dedication that is exactly why she was nominated, according to school principal Jim Daro, who has worked with her during the four years he’s been at St. Matthew.

“Mrs. Benson is an outstanding teacher,” Daro says. “She cares deeply for her students and their progress in and out of her classroom. She maintains a classroom environment where students are cared for and comfortable; they know they are there to learn. They respect her just as much as she respects them.”

As a mother of three grown children, Benson loves cultivating independence in not only her own children but those she teaches every day in the first grade classroom. “At this age, they love learning,” she says. “So all I have to do is present it to them, and they soak it up. When I see a student no longer having to struggle to read or do a math problem—that is why I teach. They take so much pride in themselves when they become independent in their thinking.”

But teaching hasn’t always come easy to Benson. She didn’t start her teaching career until after raising her children. At the start of working at St. Matthew, she felt behind in the field of education. “Things had changed since I graduated from college. This struggle has made me aware of how my students, or even a new staff member, may feel when a concept isn’t clear to them.”

That empathy is what led her to become like a support system to many other teachers at the school. Daro raves about Benson’s ability to help others, “She is a mentor and a leader with the rest of the faculty. She is highly involved in our school and community beyond the classroom. Mrs. Benson is involved with our school board, our development team, and our school improvement team.”

As for what Benson will do with the $5,000 award prize from her prestigious Educator of the Year recognition: “My husband and I are still figuring that out. Maybe a trip!”

And with all the hard work, time, and heart Benson puts into each day of teaching, a trip is definitely a great way to celebrate her dedication to the St. Matthew students and educational community.

Visit stmatthewbellevuene.net for more information.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.