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Murray Journal

Woodstock’s students choose kindness in memory of former teacher

Feb 02, 2022 01:21PM ● By Julie Slama

Felix Gallegos sits on the buddy bench he donated in memory of his wife, who taught at Woodstock Elementary, giving students kindness bracelets. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Felix Gallegos sat quietly on a bench near a tree at Woodstock Elementary’s playground in between recesses.  

When a new group of youngsters came out to play, they came up to him and each accepting a bracelet and thanking him—not just for the planting the trees, or installing the buddy bench, or for passing out the silicone bands during the school’s kindness and inclusion week—but for being part of their community.  

He was handed homemade thank-you cards, given hugs and asked lots of questions about his wife and former teacher Tracee Gallegos, who was a long-time teacher at Woodstock.

“I think she would have liked what I’ve done,” he said with tears in his eyes. “She loved being here, being around the kids. They gave her energy and lots of hugs. She always said it was a job she loved and every day, somebody would say they loved her.”

Tracee Gallegos died in January 2018 after battling colon cancer.

Third-grader Alia Evans, who wasn’t a student at the school when Tracee Gallegos taught there, asked him about his wife. She learned that the former teacher was a grandmother who loved cooking and reading.

“She even had a special chair in her classroom for reading,” Alia said.

That idea for a special chair is one Principal Brenda Byrnes adopted in Tracee’s memory and now has in her own office. 

Gallegos said that “reading and writing were what Tracee loved. She would write stories for them, and she wrote a Halloween play for them to put on. That gave the kids the ability to express themselves when they spoke. She’d have them write about their experience afterward and they told her it helped them gain confidence and gave them a voice.”

Gallegos’ visit came with the installation of his donation of a buddy bench, which sits beneath Tracee’s former classroom window. 

“She wouldn’t have wanted any kid to be left out; kindness is important,” he said.

Brynes said Gallegos’ kindness to the school has also extended to creating a scholarship, which awards a former Woodstock student who graduates from Cottonwood High to use to further education. He also contributes to other needs at the school.

“We’re blessed for all the kindness he has shown to our school, and for Tracee, for the 20 years she has loved and taught our students,” Brynes said.

During the kindness and inclusion week, Woodstock students also passed out notes to their peers when they noticed one another being kind saying they were caught being kind.

They also worked with Sammy’s Buddy Program, a Colorado-based nonprofit which has the mission to build inclusiveness in schools through education, activities and providing resources, such as a set of books on inclusion which they donated to the school library. The program is involved in 11 schools in Utah, the majority in Granite School District.

At Woodstock, there are buddy classes, where a fifth-grade class is partnered with students in a special education class, and they work together. However, the kindness and inclusion week extended to the entire student body.

“With the wristbands that say, ‘choose kindness,’ students made a pledge to actively seek out those who would need a friend, those who would need some connection, and needed to be included for whatever reason,” said the Utah Executive Director of Sammy’s Buddy Program Anne Kimble, who provided the wristbands Gallegos passed out. “So, students are not only actively trying to be kind themselves, but they are observing their peers who are demonstrating this kind of inclusive buddy behavior.”

She said at the end of the campaign, students’ names were randomly drawn to receive a kindness kit.

“It recognizes those students for being examples and leaders within their school community, which advocacy is a big thing we’ve promoted this year, whether it’s for students with disabilities or any friend. The idea is that each item in the kit is for the person to share, to keep that ripple effect of kindness going,” Kimball said of the items such as sensory balls, pop-it bracelets and fidget spinners. “We’re wanting to build relationships and understanding for inclusion and leadership for all abilities.”

Gallegos said for him, it also comes to showing appreciation.

“We all need to be grateful and show kindness,” he said. “That’s what Tracee would have wanted.”