Pasteur students on a 2015 field trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts
Pasteur students on a 2015 field trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts provided by the Friends of Pasteur. Pasteur principal Sharon Lawson is at the right in the last row with the late songwriter/artist Allee Willis in front of her.

COVID-19 has been very detrimental to Pasteur families, many of whom were already below the poverty line.

The gymnasium at Pasteur School in northwest Detroit was now a Christmas gift distribution center. The long tables normally used for lunch were stacked with boxes of toys, games and books for students, as well as household gifts for their parents. Volunteers from the nonprofit Friends of Pasteur School Detroit (previously the Pasteur Elementary School Alumni Association) as well as school staff, some nervous about being in a public setting during the pandemic, helped sort and organize so that everything would be ready when parents arrived for their gifts on Dec. 16.

Howard Davis, Pasteur Friends board member and co-chair of the Christmas Committee
Howard Davis, Pasteur Friends board member and co-chair of the Christmas Committee, helps organize gifts.

But this year’s holiday distribution took on new urgency and scope — changing like many other aspects of life because of the pandemic. The Pasteur Alumni Association was established in 1997 to provide volunteer tutors, academic enrichment programs, books, and scholarships for Pasteur students. About 20 years ago, that assistance expanded to helping 15 needy families, identified annually by school staff, with food and presents for Christmas. According to Marcy Feldman of Huntington Woods, founding president of the Pasteur Friends, that group of families had grown to 60 by last year.

COVID-19 has been very detrimental to Pasteur families, many of whom were already below the poverty line. After the school building closed due to COVID, Pasteur counselor Tammie Comeaux was making wellness calls to check on families. She found that many families were experiencing severe financial distress — some due to job loss and illness. “The community seems to be changing. There are fewer homeowners in the area. Several families had to leave due to eviction. One woman is living in her car and paying a family to care for her daughter. It weighs on you,” says Comeaux.

She contacted the Pasteur Friends and they immediately offered help and began raising additional funds. Since March, the Friends have provided $52,000 in assistance to 140 families, Feldman says.

Moores and Marcy
Pasteur Friends’ Generational Connections: Marcy Feldman (left) attended Pasteur with Lillian Baxter (deceased), whose sister Terena Moore, contributes to Friends of Pasteur. Feldman is pictured with Arlina, Moore’s daughter, a former Pasteur student who attended the school’s first reunion in 1997, and her son Jonathan, who Feldman has tutored at Pasteur.

Wendy Wagenheim of Birmingham, chair of the Pasteur Friends, says that they delivered 203 Visa gift cards for $250 each; these cards can be used to pay bills as well as purchase food and other necessities. Some families in particularly dire straits received more than one gift card over time, and all families received children’s books and art projects.

Wagenheim, Ann and Barry Waldman, and Elizabeth Jacobs distributed the gifts in several Detroit neighborhoods, some very grim, because Pasteur students live all over Detroit. (The school is considered a good one and parents can choose a school outside their area.) Because of COVID, they met to sort out gift items, and then each drove alone to deliver them, calling the families the day before to alert them.

“People were so appreciative. These are the kids we’ve gotten to know over the years,” says Wagenheim.

Some families had particularly tragic circumstances. One mother was living with seven children in a relative’s house. There were eight homeless families — some living in shelters. A few months ago, a Pasteur student died of complications of asthma. A balloon release was held in her memory outside the school. Wagenheim attended, giving the mother $500 from the Pasteur Friends for funeral expenses.

Board members Deborah Terrell and Elizabeth Jacobs
Board members Deborah Terrell and Elizabeth Jacobs get ready for gift distribution.

“People have been extremely generous,” says Feldman. They received donations from people who had just learned about the Pasteur Friends as well as longtime supporters, some multi-generational. Some of this year’s Christmas gifts were donated by Howard Goldman, owner of H and H Wholesale, a local distributor to drug stores. Elizabeth Jacobs and Howard Davis chair the Friends’ Christmas Committee.

Rebecca Blumenstein, who attended kindergarten at Pasteur, is a supporter of Pasteur Friends and helped secure a donation from a New York charitable fund. She is deputy managing editor of the New York Times.

The Pasteur Friends expect to spend $28,000 for Christmas gifts for Pasteur’s 260 families. Each family will receive a $75 gift card as well as toys and household items. A smaller group of especially needy families will receive additional help including food boxes from Project Healthy Community. This nonprofit provides healthy food and health-related educational programs in partnership with Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit. The organization was started by Rabbi Joshua Bennett and Dr. Melvyn Rubenfire and his late wife, Diane.

Pasteur 3 with boxes
Volunteers Marcy Feldman, Lean Crumm and Liz Jacobs help with gifts.

After Christmas, the Friends want to bolster student participation in online pandemic learning. “Kids can’t stay online all day. They are dropping through the cracks. There is no joy in being by yourself all day in front of the computer,” Wagenheim says.

School staff members have asked them to develop an incentive program, perhaps offering gift certificates for meals or other presents to encourage students to “come and stay online every day. I’m not aware of any other schools doing this,” she adds.

“We care about our families and we’re doing our best … It’s a blessing what Pasteur is doing,” says Comeaux.

Volunteer group
Five of the volunteers from Friends of Pasteur helping organize Christmas gifts: Marcy Feldman, Howard Davis, Deborah Terrell, Celia Savonen and Wendy Wagenheim. Nathan Vicar | Detroit Jewish News

For more information, visit friendsofpasteur.org.

More about Friends of Pasteur:

Today there are 1,500 alumni on the Friends of Pasteur mailing list and 175 supporters from all over the U.S., Canada and Israel. Most are Pasteur alumni, relatives or friends of alumni, and many are Jewish. Pasteur’s catchment area encompasses the Green Acres and Sherwood Forest neighborhoods east of Livernois, as well as the area around the school, located on Stoepel, a block west of Livernois. The group evolved after a Mumford High School reunion led to a social get together of Jewish and African American women alumni who wanted to “catch up” after many years.

Prior to the pandemic, Feldman says that about 40 volunteers served at Pasteur — some as regular tutors or assistants in the afterschool art club funded by the Friends, and others who speak at Career and Earth Day events. Many are alumni but others are residents of the Pasteur neighborhood. Some are tutoring virtually.

An annual special activity takes sixth-grade students to see live performances of Anne Frank, produced by the Jewish Ensemble Theater. Students also receive books, as well as tablets and scholarships for selected students graduating from sixth grade.

Sharon Lawson, now retired, who was Pasteur’s principal for 15 years, says that the volunteers “opened up the school. It was such a joy having them around.” She said that it was valuable for the students to have the new experiences that they provided. Lawson serves on the board of Pasteur Friends.

Wagenheim points out that the organization is volunteer-run and operated. Their only administrative costs are to maintain their website and PayPal account. “All of the money donated goes to benefit the children,” she says.

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