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'She just needed somebody to help her'—principal adopts student after she's suspended

An unlikely family will celebrate their ninth Christmas together this year.

principal adopts student adoption, adoption stories, foster care
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Girl sitting in detention

Get ready folks, this story is a bit of a tearjerker.

Back in 2015, Jason Smith, a school principal, met a sixth-grade girl sitting outside his office, waiting to be reprimanded for throwing yogurt at a classmate during lunch.

That girl, Raven Whitaker, would later become his daughter.

Smith recalled with Good Morning America that the 11-year-old looked like a “sweet,” “innocent” child as she admitted to him what she had done.

Trying to reason with her, Smith asked, "Well, if you were out at a restaurant, would you do that there?'"

And that was when Raven told him that she had never really been to a restaurant. As she explained to WTHR, she had spent most of her life in the foster care system, suffering under terrible conditions, and was currently living in a group home.

This immediately touched Smith. "At that point, I had felt like she just needed a hand, needed help," he told GMA. "I recognized that she needed something to go in her favor, maybe for once, that it hadn't gone in her favor in the past, but she just needed somebody to help her."

Smith went home to explore the idea of fostering Raven with his wife Marybeth. This was, understandably, a touchy subject, as the couple had wanted children of their own and not only struggled through infertility treatments, but also already had fostered kids.

But Marybeth knew her husband must have felt “passionate” about it, so they gave it some thought. And eventually they reached out to begin the fostering process. Raven ended up moving into their home in June 2015. And on Nov. 3, 2017, as Raven entered high school, the Smiths formally adopted her.

Despite it seeming strange at first, Raven noted that the Smiths made her “feel extremely welcome, like I was already in the family. They got everything that I needed without even knowing that I would be there forever. They just did it."

She even looks back and says she “always knew” that the Smiths would end up being her permanent family. And with that support system in place, Raven Whitaker (make that Raven Whitaker-Smith) overcame the odds. Now 20, Raven is in college studying social work and sharing her story to offer some hope to others in similar situations.

It’s amazing what miracles can happen for kids when they are placed in a loving environment. As principal-turned-dad Jason Smith told GMA, “there are no bad children…given the right opportunity, given the proper support, love and affection, all children can be successful."

Watch the full story below.

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Do you ever feel like you could be doing more when it comes to making a positive impact on your community? The messaging around giving back is louder than ever this time of year, and for good reason; It is the season of giving, after all.

If you’ve ever wondered who is responsible for bringing many of the giving-back initiatives to life, it’s probably not who you’d expect. The masterminds behind these types of campaigns are project managers.

Using their talents and skills, often proven by earning certifications from the Project Management Institute (PMI), project managers are driving real change and increasing the success rate on projects that truly improve our world.

To celebrate the work that project managers are doing behind the scenes to make a difference, we spoke with two people doing more than their part to make an impact.

In his current role as a Project Management Professional (PMP)-certified project manager and environmental engineer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Joshua Williard oversees the cleanup of some of America’s most contaminated and hazardous waste sites.

Courtesy of Joshua Williard

“Recently, I was part of a four-person diving team sent to collect contaminated sediment samples from the bottom of a river in Southeastern Virginia. We wanted to ensure a containment wall was successfully blocking the release of waste into an adjacent river,” Williard says.

Through his work, Josh drives restoration efforts to completion so contaminated land can again be used beneficially, and so future generations will not be at risk of exposure to harmful chemicals.

“I’ve been inspired by the natural world from a young age and always loved being outside. As I gained an understanding about Earth's trajectory, I realized that I wanted to be part of trying to save it and keep it for future generations.

“I learned the importance of using different management styles to address various project challenges. I saw the value in building meaningful relationships with key community members. I came to see that effective project management can make a real difference in getting things done and having on-the-ground impact,” Williard says.

In addition, Monica Chan’s career in project management has enabled her to work at the forefront of conservation efforts with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF-US). She most recently has been managing a climate change project, working with a diverse team including scientists, policy experts, data analysts, biologists, communicators, and more. The goal is to leverage grants to protect and restore mangroves, forests, and ecosystems, and drive demand in seaweed farming – all to harness nature's power to address the climate crisis.

Courtesy of Monica Chan

“As the project management lead for WWF-US, I am collaborating across the organization to build a project management framework that adapts to our diverse projects. Given that WWF's overarching objectives center on conserving nature and addressing imminent threats to the diversity of life on Earth, the stakes are exceptionally high in how we approach projects,” says Chan.

“Throughout my journey, I've discovered a deep passion for project management's ability to unite people for shared goals, contributing meaningfully to environmental conservation,” she says.

With skills learned from on-the-job experience and resources from PMI, project managers are the central point of connection for social impact campaigns, driving them forward and solving problems along the way. They are integral to bringing these projects to life, and they find support from their peers in PMI’s community.

PMI has a global network of more than 300 chapters and serves as a community for project managers – at every stage of their career. Members can share knowledge, celebrate impact, and learn together through resources, events, and other programs such as PMI’s Hours for Impact program, which encourages PMI members to volunteer their time to projects directly supporting the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

“By tapping into PMI's extensive network and resources, I've expanded my project management knowledge and skills, gaining insights from seasoned professionals in diverse industries, including environmental management. Exposure to different perspectives has kept me informed about industry trends, best practices, and allowed me to tailor my approach to the unique challenges of the non-profit sector,” Chan says.

“Obtaining my PMP certification has been a game-changer, propelling not only my career growth, but also reshaping my approach to daily projects, both personally and professionally,” Chan says. Research from PMI shows that a career in project management means being part of an industry on the rise, as the global economy will need 25 million new project professionals by 2030 and the median salary for project practitioners in the U.S. is $120K.

PMI’s mission is to help professionals build project management skills through online courses, networking, and other learning opportunities, help them prove their proficiency in project management through certifications, and champion the work that project professionals, like Joshua and Monica, do around the world.

For those interested in pursuing a career in project management to help make a difference, PMI’s Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) certification could be the starting point to help get your foot in the door.

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A Christmas PSA: Please be mindful about what gifts Santa brings your kids

A mom is asking people to consider the bigger picture when deciding what Santa will deliver to your house.

Mary Katherine Backstrom/Facebook, Photo by Samuel Holt on Unsplash

Mary Katherine Backstrom makes a strong argument for keeping Santa gifts simple.

Every family has its own traditions and ways of doing things around the holidays, from cooking specific foods to engaging in specific cultural rituals to how the myth of Santa gets handled. In general, it's wise to live and let live when it comes to such things, but one mom is making a strong case for rethinking what gifts Santa brings kids for Christmas in the larger context of community.

Mary Katherine Backstrom has been posting a public service announcement of sorts every year for the past decade, asking people to be mindful about other families' economic realities and how a family's Santa gifts can impact other people's children. Her message makes perfect sense, but it's something people who have never struggled financially might never consider.

"My annual PSA from a child who grew up poor," Backstrom captioned her video plea. She began by sharing that her parents separated when she was little, and she lived with her mom, who didn't always have the means to give her kids a lot for Christmas.

"Every Christmas, I would split my time between my mom and my dad," she said, explaining that her dad's side of the family had a lot of money. She would see her cousins getting thousands of dollars in gifts from Santa, while her gifts from Santa at home were far more modest. So she would go from being happy with what she'd received to questioning why Santa didn't think she'd been good enough to receive the expensive gifts he brought her cousins.

"There is seriously nothing wrong with what you can give your child for Christmas. It doesn't matter. That's not the point," she said. "But when we tell children that Santa Claus brings all of our gifts, what happens is kids like me and other children who don't have as many things will see other children getting all of these expensive toys and they'll wonder what they did wrong."

As Backstrom points out, children are naturally going to compare; that's developmentally appropriate. Kids are also very aware of what's fair and what's not, so when Santa lavishes some children with expensive presents and gives other kids a lot less, the kids whose parents don't have as much end up questioning their goodness through no fault of their own.

Watch Backstrom share her story (starting at the 2:00 minute mark):

Many people in the comments expressed gratitude for the message, saying that they, too, were the kid who thought Santa didn't like them.

"I was that child too," shared one commenter. "I hated when school started back after Christmas and the teacher would go around the room and ask everyone to tell what they got for Christmas. It was painful and humiliating. I thought I was the only one who hated how Christmas was such a stressful time."

"I remember very clearly my friend that lived next door getting everything on her letter to santa and I didnt understand why santa hated me! I agree 100%!!" offered another.

"100% CORRECT! I was also that child and yes, I wondered if I wasn't a good enough girl to deserve the same things Santa was bringing the other children," wrote another.

Other people shared that they had simply never thought of this aspect of Christmas giving and they were thankful for the widened perspective.

"Thank you for opening my eyes. I wish I had thought about this when I was Santa!!" wrote one commenter.

"I never thought of it like this. It really has opened my eyes and heart... You are so insightful and wise. Thank you," shared another.

"I love your honesty. I never thought about this when my son believed in Santa. I wish I had," wrote another.

Unfortunately, not everyone received the kind and gentle plea with grace and understanding. Some doubled down on their "right" to have Santa bring whatever gifts they darn well please. Backstrom posted a blunt follow-up video pointing out that she was speaking from her own lived experience, not sharing some hypothetical what-if with no basis in reality.

"This PSA is telling you that you are hurting children when you associate Santa Claus with expensive gifts," she said. "I'm not gonna be delicate about this anymore, because I've been doing this PSA for 10 years now and I still get people arguing with me about it. There is nothing to argue here. We are talking about children's feelings."

Backstrom pointed to the number of people in the comments who shared that they were hurt by expensive Santa gifts as a child to illustrate that this is, actually, a real issue. And the solution is simple: Keep Santa simple and let the expensive gifts come from parents or other family members. It's really not a lot to ask to preserve a little holiday magic for kids who don't have much instead of making them question why Santa doesn't think they're good enough. Santa is a tradition millions of people share—let's keep that collective reality in mind and keep the fun in it for everyone.

You can follow Mary Katherine Backstrom for more on Facebook.

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