It’s been said that the best way to teach children is through example. A team of teachers and musicians are leading the way for the students at Skokie’s John Middleton Elementary School and McCracken Middle School. It’s practically kismet that the key players involved connected through their love of music and philanthropy. Their shared passion and partnership has helped grow awareness for two nonprofit organizations: Aiding Children Together and A Better Life For Kids.
Five years ago, middle school teacher Jen Ciok was teaching her students about child labor in other countries. The students were shocked and outraged by this, and in turn sent letters to the U.S. Congress. To their surprise, the students heard back from Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), who had read their letters and supported their beliefs. The students were inspired to do more. Ciok and her students created an after-school organization called Aiding Children Together, where they could continue to raise funds for children in need.
Around the same time, Shelley Nizynski, a second-grade teacher at John Middleton Elementary School, had just returned from a mission trip to Ghana, Africa. After witnessing firsthand the struggles of the children there, Nizynski created A Better Life For Kids, a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities such as food, medicine, essential supplies, and education opportunities for children in Ghana.
“We are especially proud to sponsor eight orphaned deaf children to attend a boarding school for the deaf,” Nizynski says. “These children are shunned by their society because of their disability, but now they have been given hope with a chance to learn proper sign language and how to read and write. We are focused on building personal, meaningful relationships with all of the children so that they know they are loved.”
Each year, much of the money raised by Aiding Children Together (Ciok’s organization) has been donated to A Better Life For Kids (Nizynski’s organization). “When I found out that Shelley was doing work in Ghana to benefit children and guarantee their right to education, health, safety and equality, Aiding Children Together decided that we wanted to work with her to make an impact on that community,” Ciok says. “We realized that the money we raised could really help to make a difference in the lives of children there. This has helped our students at McCracken be able to see how their money is being used and how it has really changed the lives of so many.”
Wendy Morgan, a professional singer, songwriter and teacher, happened to be listening to NPR Worldview one day when she heard Ciok discussing her organization on the radio. Wendy felt an immediate connection to Jen’s story and contacted her to get involved. What evolved was a song that Wendy and the McCracken students sat down to write together, called “Shine A Light,” which encourages others to stand up to injustices and suffering in the world and be the voice to bring change. “The song highlights A Better Life for Kids’ work in Ghana as well as the middle school students’ efforts to bring hope to the children we serve,” Nizynski says. “Listening to ‘Shine A Light’ is a very personal and meaningful experience for us, because the middle school students are singing about children we have grown to know and love.” With the help of fellow musician and educator Darryl Boggs (DB) and pianist Dean Rolando, Morgan and Ciok’s students recently recorded “Shine A Light” at Chicago’s renown Mayne Stage.
The students’ and teachers’ hard work culminates on the evening of Feb. 26, when McCracken students will accompany Morgan and Boggs in the Relief for Ghana concert, where they will perform “Shine A Light” live for the first time. If you can’t attend the concert, consider downloading the catchy song that you and your children are sure to keep on repeat. Downloads of the song will entirely benefit A Better Life For Kids. “Shine A Light” download cards will be available in February and information will be posted on the website.