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The Volunteer

"How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."

- Anne Frank

Marisol Duenas has spent most of her adult life in Chicago and San Diego, but her proud Mexican heritage is always with her. Born in Tijuana, she frequently spends her weekends with her aunts and uncles, where laughter, good food and mariachi music are standard fare.

When meeting Marisol, you are likely to feel that you have found a friend for life. Blessed with outstanding people skills, keen intuition and an abundance of energy, it did not take long for Marisol to find her niche in business. Beginning as a mortgage lending officer, she quickly rose to become the branch manager. In 2007 Marisol heard about the Rainforest Art Project at Perkins Elementary School, and began volunteering her time to work with students who faced extraordinary obstacles.

Bringing out the best in Special-Needs Students

When special needs students are first introduced to challenging art projects, we know from experience that a good percentage of them will tell us, in no uncertain terms that they hate art, or that they are just no good at it. These students are often surprised that they are the recipients of additional individual attention and support. There is nothing more exciting for a teacher than witnessing that “breakthrough moment” when students overcome their insecurities to discover their unique talents and end up embracing art like a long-lost friend.

I began to understand that kids with special needs have two strikes against them. First, they have the disorder itself, and all the challenges it poses. But second, they have to spend a good deal of their time in school dealing with things they're bad at. What we need to do is change this situation around so that right from the start, students with special needs are told about all the things they're good at, and are engaged in activities that are based on those strengths.

- Thomas Armstrong, teacher/author

Over the years, many wonderful people have believed in the Rainforest mission, and have unselfishly volunteered their time and energy to bring art to students in underserved communities throughout Southern California. For some of them, the experience has completely altered their life trajectory, inspiring a new path of service and caring.

After falling out of touch for several years, the Rainforest Art Project was recently reunited with old friend and volunteer, Marisol Duenas, and she had a most extraordinary story to tell.

Her experience at Perkins Elementary School had life changing repercussions, inspiring her to go back to school for her master’s degree and teaching credential, specializing in students with special needs. She has been working for several years at San Diego High School (San Diego’s oldest, founded in 1882), which serves an unusually diverse inner-city neighborhood. With a student population of over 2,600, and some twenty percent registered as homeless, this is a school which demands the very best efforts from its dedicated staff.

Upon assuming her new responsibilities, Marisol and her co-teacher, Vanessa Montgomery, decided that priority number one was to provide an environment where every student would feel accomplished and successful, regardless of their limitations. They discussed potential opportunities, and decided to form the Cavers Coffee Crew, where students would gain business and service skills by making and delivering top-quality coffee to teachers before their first period classes. The Cavers Coffee Crew wrote their business plan and designed their own custom logo for cups, aprons and tee shirts. Now in its second year, the Cavers Coffee Crew is a proud team, who are the soulful beneficiaries of glowing complements for their outstanding products and their warm, courteous service.

Cavers showing their creations

Students, who were once isolated by their challenges, now feel that they are accomplishing something extraordinary. “Most of our students are not able to make the academic C average which would allow them to compete in athletics, and they lack the social skills to participate in other campus clubs,” says Ms. Duenas, “but with the Cavers Coffee Club we all feel that we are part of something important and special.”

Caver Coffee crew learning skills with the Rainforest Art Project

In addition to acquiring vital business skills, members of The Crew have passed the exam to receive their food-handler’s certificate. Last year, the Cavers Coffee Crew raised an astonishing six thousand dollars, which they voted to spend on a fabulous trip to Six Flags, along with numerous other local outings.

This year, the Crew has even bigger ideas. They are honing their artistic and design skills with the Rainforest Art Project, and have plans to begin major improvements to their aging campus. Through this non-traditional approach to working with students with special needs, Marisol and Vanessa have taken project-based learning to a whole new level. The Cavers Coffee Club is not only helping students to understand math, business and social skills, but goes much further by evoking a deep sense of community, pride and purpose.

The Cavers Coffee crew in front of San Diego High school, founded in 1882


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