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  • Feature story on JHS grads filling their gap year with compassionate service
  • Employee Spotlight: Emily Johnson and her passion for page-turning
  • How one East Intermediate teacher and her sister are connecting classrooms and cultures
  • TROJANS VOTE on November 6!
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It is 5:30 a.m. in Ahmedabad, India.

A young girl opens her eyes to instant responsibility. She has five younger siblings to care for and feed. Her name is Sonal. She thinks she is 11 years old, but because she was born in a remote village, she isn’t sure. Today is just like every other day. For the past two years, Sonal has lived with her family on a construction site. Her parents, both unskilled laborers on the site, earn 400 rupees or $5.50 per day. Their home is a 100-square foot shanty held together by loose bricks, a tin roof, and a muddy tarp.

In the midst of the seemingly endless monotony of cooking, cleaning, and fetching water, there is a reprieve. Inside a makeshift classroom at the construction site, Sonal meets two teenage girls. They look alike, but they also look like her. They are warm and kind. They speak her language.

They are Hridaya and Hridika Shah, twin sisters and recent graduates of Jenks High School. After moving to the United States at the age of four, the Shah sisters finished high school a year early and returned to their home country as 17-year olds to volunteer at a hospital and to provide education to children like Sonal. Through an internship with SAATH Charitable Trust, Hridaya and Hridika teach basic reading and writing skills to these impoverished and undernourished kids.

“In India, the children of construction workers don’t go to school,” said Hridaya. “They are part of migratory families so they can’t enroll in municipal schools. The lack of hygiene causes rampant illnesses and healthy food is hard to find. We are working on a project called Child Friendly Spaces which seeks to address these problems by putting a classroom on the construction site. If we can provide better nourishment and educational opportunities for these children, hopefully many of them will be able to break this cycle of poverty.”

Social progress in India is complicated. Change occurs slowly in a population desensitized to the plight of the poor. Nearly 30 percent of India’s people live in poverty. Recent estimates put the total number of children living on the street at 18 million. Forced to survive through malnourishment and a variety of illnesses, Indian children are often smaller, skinnier, and more prone to other diseases. Although laws are in place to ensure education for every child, those laws are frequently unenforced. Government support and social programs are limited. In the often deplorable conditions on construction sites, Hridaya and Hridika are learning to celebrate small victories.

There is poverty in america, but the poverty in india is an entirely different level - hridika shah

“When I was little, I dreamed of changing the world,” Hridika remarked. “For these kids, the construction site is their world. They don’t dream big because despite the work that we do, very few of them manage to make their way out of poverty. Seeing what these kids have to overcome, it breaks my heart. But my sister and I also know that if we can make a difference in the life of one child, the work is worth it.”

“We are trying to change the children’s perceptions of themselves,” explained Hridaya. “When I asked a 12-year old girl what she wanted to be, she had no idea. These children don’t know anything about astronauts, or accountants, or any other job except for laborers. This girl told me if she could have anything in the world, she would get air conditioning in a new house so her family didn’t have to live in a shanty anymore.”

When Hridaya and Hridika are not teaching, playing, and singing songs with children on the construction site, they are volunteering and observing at the Health and Care Foundation – a hospital providing affordable health care to impoverished people. The twins are hoping to gain a better understanding of medicine in an international setting while witnessing solutions to India’s numerous healthcare challenges. According to a Forbes article from 2017, without the support of non-profit hospitals, only one out of every 2,046 Indian citizens would have access to a bed in a government hospital. India spends just 4.7 percent of GDP on healthcare. By comparison, the United States spends 125 times more.

Hridaya (top left) and Hridika Shah (top right and bottom) are working to improve the lives of children in Ahmedabad, India. (all photos courtesy of Hridaya and Hridika Shah)

“In theory, Indian citizens who can’t afford private sector health care are supposed to have open access to government hospitals,” Hridaya described. “However, government run hospitals are often small, understaffed, and unsanitary. Corruption also drains what little funds these hospitals receive so they are far too limited in the amount of services they can provide to the public."

The Shah sisters, who started attending Jenks Public Schools halfway through their seventh grade year, became more involved in volunteering during their time as members of Key Club at Jenks High School. After spending time serving with non-profits around the Tulsa area, and returning to India over their summer breaks, both Hridaya and Hridika felt compelled to form a deeper connection to their home country. Being fluent in Gujarati – the predominant language in the state of Gujurat – allows the sisters to form fast relationships with the children on construction sites and with the patients they visit in a cerebral palsy unit at the local hospital.

“While it is important to work hard to better your life, it’s just as important to do your part in bettering your country,” stated Hridika. “I’m a proud Indian-American. Doing this work with these people allows me to experience India like never before.”

It is special to give back. It is even more meaningful for Hridaya and Hridika to serve together.

“We are each other’s best friend,” Hridika said. “We have always been a team.”

Sonal, happy and smiling inside her classroom, works 17-hour days caring for her siblings and attending to household chores while her parents work on the construction site.

When the gap year in India is done, the sisters will stick together for their next adventure. In the fall of 2019, both will enroll at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Hridaya, a National Merit Semifinalist, will study molecular and cellular biology. Hridika wants to pursue a degree in public health studies.

While the big picture is uncertain, Hridaya and Hridika see service, medicine, or a combination of both, somewhere in the future. For now, their focus is on developing a fundraising campaign as part of their internship. The goal is to raise $5,000 to provide nutritional and educational support for the child laborers. Donations as little as ten dollars can provide shelter, three meals a day, and an informal education for children like Sonal. CLICK HERE TO DONATE

For Hridaya and Hridika, empathy means taking action. It’s an attitude instilled in them by their parents. Today in India, small victories are waiting. The Shah sisters, with their perspective now forever changed, will celebrate each and every one of them.


Emily Johnson

Emily Johnson is reading a manga book.

The Library Media Specialist at Jenks Middle School isn’t necessarily captivated by the genre of Japanese graphic novels. She’s learning to adjust to the right-to-left reading style and she’s focusing on the development of the animé characters because she views all of it as a critical part of her job.

“I need to stay up to date with what kids are interested in,” said Johnson, who has held her current position for five years and worked at JMS since 2010. “I want to be able to connect with our students. I need to read a variety of genres and titles so I can talk to all the kids, because they all have individual tastes.”

Johnson’s goal is to finish eight books every month. Whether she is turning pages or listening to audio books, the Glenpool native consumes as much literature as she can in order to better serve her students.

“It might seem uncool to talk about books, but I genuinely want to help change the culture here at our school,” Johnson explained. “These students have to walk in here and encounter someone who is excited about reading or they’re not going to be excited.”

From the bright, colorful artwork on the walls to the specific layout of the furniture, and even the appearance of the bookshelves-no over-stuffing with out-of-date titles-Johnson has successfully transformed the JMS library into what she hopes the students will view as “the heart of the school.” The themes and decorations change often. Earlier this month, a table in the middle of the library was adorned with cobwebs and books about zombies for a series Johnson titled “Undead and Well Read.”

“We don’t want anything to stay the same in here,” Johnson stated. “We want students to constantly see something new.”

In the same way the physical space of the library has been redesigned, Johnson and her team-library assistants Dana Rector and Kimberly Henry-are continuously re-imagining and redefining their roles.

“My job is not to stock shelves or check out books. My job is to be a teacher librarian,” Johnson said. “I’m teaching lessons on research, fake news, how to use databases, and how to cite sources. I’m giving book talks to help boost our individual readership, and I’m partnering with our teachers to find books and resources to complement their lessons. Helping students and teachers is why we’re here.”

A former language arts teacher who holds two master’s degrees in English Education and Library Science, Johnson finds her greatest sense of fulfillment in helping students make discoveries.

“I love that I get to interact with students in a positive way,” Johnson said with a smile. “I love seeing the enjoyment they get from reading a new genre or new author. Technology is everywhere and these kids are in front of a screen for hours on end. I like playing a part in creating a culture of reading in a place where kids value the opportunity to unplug, sit down, and open a book.”

Lately, many of the books Johnson is opening fall into the category of realistic fiction young adult novels. She has found these books helpful in gaining a better understanding of the teenage experience and all the different emotions associated with being 13 or 14 years old. It is this appreciation for the mindset of a middle schooler, and the genuine care and concern for each individual student that pushes Johnson forward in her mission to find the right book for the right kid.

“Some are more challenging than others,” Johnson laughed. “It keeps me energized, and I love it.”


Emily Copsey lives 6,000 miles away from her sister. Copsey is a fifth grade teacher at Jenks East Intermediate. Her sister, Clara Brown, also directs a classroom at the Pearl House Academy in Winneba, a village in the Central Region of Ghana.

Recently, with the help of a strong internet connection, the sisters decided to set up a series of conversations between their students. Through the Global Read Aloud program, students divided by an ocean were brought together by reading the same book at the same time. Emily and Clara were able to create not only a lesson in literature, but an interactive experience in empathy.


We do not have a government by the majority. we have a government by the majority who participate. - thomas jefferson


  • November 21-23 - Thanksgiving Break
  • November 30 - District Collaboration Day (late start at ALL school sites)
  • December 21 - January 6 - Winter Break
  • January 7 - School resumes

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