The COVID-19 pandemic hit close to home for Rachel Bernstein.
Bernstein, a junior inclusive childhood education major from West Islip, N.Y., saw a tremendous outpouring of support from family and friends when her mother, Deborah, was hospitalized after contracting the virus.
Two days after her mother returned home – she is on her way to a full recovery – Bernstein took one of her favorite phrases and made it a reality.
When you can’t find the sunshine, be the sunshine.
Bernstein wanted to pay forward the kindness her family had received by helping children facing food insecurity in the West Islip community.
She created a private Facebook group called “Be the Sunshine” and asked for donations so that she could buy food and distribute it to those in need. An anonymous Google form allows families to apply directly or others to nominate those who are struggling but may be too proud to ask.
As of May 5, Bernstein has shifted the campaign to GoFundMe and has already received $2,800 in donations and she has personally delivered 95 days worth of meals.
Bernstein, who aims to teach elementary school students, was also inspired by conversations she’s had with faculty and classmates in SUNY Cortland classrooms about the ways teachers can serve their students.
“We’ve talked about in classes how sometimes the only access students have to food is when school is in session,” she said. “Long winter breaks and extended summer breaks can put a child at risk. I was thinking how the usual three-month summer break turned into a six-month summer break and how hard that may be as well as the economic crisis right now. Children who aren’t usually at risk or aren’t normally facing food insecurity are facing it because of parents losing their jobs.”
Bernstein buys in bulk at a local wholesale club. For $6, she can provide three meals and a snack for a single child. She’s also been taking care to make contactless deliveries at front doors.
The community response has been overwhelming. Bernstein originally started on Facebook trying to reach her friends from home. The campaign soon touched parents and many of her former teachers from elementary, middle and high school.
West Islip School District has also taken notice. Bernstein is aiming to work with its social workers to encourage spreading the word and registering families who may need assistance.
Bernstein originally came to SUNY Cortland intending to major in criminology even though her friends and family knew where she was going to end up.
“I didn’t listen to anybody until two weeks into college and I realized everyone was right.”
She quickly switched to inclusive childhood education and found the right fit. Bernstein can’t wait to be in a classroom of her own, but she also dreams of continuing projects like “Be the Sunshine” to help students in other ways as well.
“In most of my classes we’ve talked about how support goes a little further than just simply educating the students,” Bernstein said. “We’ve talked about how sometimes you need to provide emotional support or moral support, whatever it may be. You might know that your student’s parents work after school and they can’t come to their soccer games, so maybe you show up so they have someone there.
“We’ve talked about support in all aspects and I think there are a lot of students out there right now who need that support.”
Bernstein was scared when her mother was in the hospital. She knows others feel the same way, whether they have a sick relative or if they’re worried about trying to pay rent or afford groceries.
She’s trying to spread this compassion in her own neighborhood and hopes it carries over as one of her hallmark traits in her future career as a teacher.
“I can write 100 lessons plans but writing a good lesson plan doesn’t make you a good teacher,” Bernstein said. “You have to have the heart for it. You need to be able to emotionally, and however you can, support your students. In case we ever come into another crisis like this, it’s something I’ll have experience in. I would love to continue this on a larger scale. I’d love to one day hopefully do this for my school district plus my hometown or spread it wherever we can.”