By Dustin Luca
---- — They started out needing something to do after school, but a year later they’re working to cement their West Middle School legacy.
As schools close for winter break, a group of 10 eighth-graders at the school are wrapping up a canned food drive that aimed at bringing in thousands of cans of food for the Lazarus House in Lawrence. It’s the third such effort the boys have run for the shelter. They’ve given themselves the name “Laz in the House.”
They were brought together by retired assistant principal Debra Downes, who left the school last year. She brought them together because they needed something to do outside of class -- not that they were thrilled with the idea at first.
“At first, I thought this was going to be a drag,” Abraham Masunzu, 13, said. “It was only every Friday at first. But after the first few weeks, we came every day. We were eager to work on it.”
The group’s first task was to run a donation drive for clothing. The season was changing and the need for winter jackets and other clothing was growing. The group jokingly set a goal of bringing in one ton — 2,000 pounds — of clothing. Lazarus House officials told them to reconsider, cautioning them that they should tone it down and not establish a high goal, only to be disappointed.
Ken Campbell, director of Food Services at Lazarus House, was at the other end of that conversation.
“They wouldn’t hear any of that,” he said, chuckling. “They maintained their very high goal.”
Halfway through the drive, Laz in the House reached their goal of 2,000 pounds of clothing. They would ultimately come to double their goal and bring in two tons of winter clothing. But for Abraham, it wasn’t how much they brought in that stood out to him.
“A lot of the clothes were new clothes. You could find the tags,” he said. “People bought the clothes just to donate them.”
The boys have arranged other efforts, including hand-making sandwiches for Lazarus House. In recent weeks, the team took on a new task: getting each of the school’s six teams to donate 1,000 cans of food or more. As of Monday, they were close to halfway there with just a week to go.
When asked what drives them to help the shelter, 13-year-old Luke Jodoin described the first time he visited the shelter and saw the families their efforts were helping.
“We saw the thrift store. We saw the soup kitchen,” he said. “I thought my room was small, and I have to share with my brother. They pack every corner with beds.”
Vishvesh Kaul, also 13, picked up from there.
“If you’re complaining about, ‘Oh, my room’s too small,’ or, ‘Mom, I didn’t like what you made for dinner last night,’ then you see that people are eating canned food every day and sleeping in a cold room with 10, 15 other people, it makes you really think about what you have,” he said.
Now, as the members of Laz in the House prepare to graduate from West Middle School, they’re looking at the larger student body at Andover High School as an opportunity to expand their efforts. But they also hope their departure doesn’t see an end to their work at West Middle School.
“We want to keep a legacy in this school going,” Robbie Powers, 13, said. Lazarus House has a variety of community partners helping generate food and clothing to keep area families warm and fed.
“We’re very fortunate, in that we get supported from so many schools and so many churches,” Campbell said. “But this group of young men that, honestly, was given a tremendous opportunity by the staff... They were just amazing to bring them together, put them in a leadership role.”
Laz In the House “just really accepted it incredibly well,” Campbell added. “How they did it showed incredible responsibility and maturity.”
Their efforts were applauded by the School Committee last week, which heard from the boys during a regular meeting. At the meeting, Andover High Principal Chris Lord jokingly told the boys to report to his office on July 1, the first day of the upcoming school year.
“I’m extremely proud of these young men,” Superintendent Marinel McGrath said. “They have given of themselves in a way that means much to many, many people who are less fortunate. The self reflection and personal growth for each student is remarkable.”
Campbell believes the Laz in the House effect at West Middle is already strong.
“There’s been other individuals and other groups from West Middle School that have come forward, that have done things on their own, which has been nothing short of significant in itself,” he said. “They’ve been a significant contributor for us to continue providing assistance to families that need it in this particular time in their lives. They all have a bright future.”