Friday, June 4, 2010

Ohanian Comment Triggers Memories

Susan Ohanian, one of the leading progressive educators in the nation, kindly mentioned me in a recent post on the trip we all took to The Woo in Birmingham, Al in an introduction to this post:

Another Comment on Believe Charter

In March 2003, about 30 people traveled to Birmingham, Alabama to pay tribute to Steve Orel and The World of Opportunity (The WOO), giving the WOO The Courage in Education award. That's where I met Norm Scott, who made a number of trips to The WOO, taking needed supplies. Those of us who traveled to The WOO formed bonds that will never break.

Susan is so right about bonds being formed amongst people meeting for the first and in some cases only time (the only time I met her). I can never stop thanking John Lawhead for taking me down there. Face to face still works in building relationships, though the web certainly helps you keep in touch.

Just think of it - Steve Orel, Susan Ohanian, Bill and Joanne Cala, Juanita Doyon, Kathy Emory and too many others to name were there. Bill Cala, who should be state ed commissioner, and I are still in touch. I remember we just found so much to laugh about and had a lot of fun thinking about running a make believe campaign against the former awful State Ed Comm Richard (Dickie Boy) Allen. (Actually, on a subsequent visit to NYC Bill asked me to attend a meeting where I met Ann Cook from Urban Academy and Time Out From Testing's Jane Hirschman for the first time.)

Bill ran the Fairport schools for many years before retiring and then was asked to run the Rochester schools briefly before they hired Kleinite John Claude Brizzard, sort of like going from Cinderella to Godzilla. Bill is one of the leaders of the fight to keep Mayor Duffy, now Cuomo's choice for Lt Gov, from taking over the schools.

Susan's post gives me an excuse to talk a bit about Steve Orel, who is one of the great heroes of education. We made one trip down with supplies and got to see Steve when he was still hanging in and still running The Woo - saw him once more when he visited NY for medical care. I actually get ill at times just thinking about him not being with us. And I only met him 3 times. I captured just a flavor of Steve in my Wave column:

I recently revisited the WOO when I hitched a ride with friends driving down south. We were on the highway following our sketchy Mapquest directions to the WOO, which is in a remote high poverty area on the edge of Birmingham across the street from a housing project (with buildings no more than two stories tall) when a van cut in front of us and the driver started gesturing to follow.

Not sure if this was a carjacking or someone with a barbecue restaurant looking for business (we had been doing our share of damage to our cholesterol counts), we hesitated until out popped a yellow piece of paper that said "The WOO" on it. The driver was Steve Orel who just happened to come across our van. "You think I couldn't recognize three Jews from New York?" Steve told us later. Steve is Jewish and a civil rights activist - which must go over real big in Birmingham -- he has had his house shot at.

Steve paid me one of the greatest compliments I had as a teacher. I was working with a student doing one on one tutoring for about 2 hours when we were at The Woo. Steve was rushing around all over the place and I never thought he noticed me. The next day he told me he could tell what kind of teacher I was by the way I interacted with the student - who was a 24 year old high school dropout. "You never saw me with an entire class," I told him. "One on one I easy." "I can tell," he said. Steve understood what teaching was all about - a relationship between student and teacher. He made me think of that angle in judging teachers. Not the outcome only crap they are throwing at people.

Of course, Steve's immense sense of humor was always there. I wish I had a video of Steve telling stories of Steve the Jew at southern revival meetings with his wife's family. My side hurts just thinking about how hard I laughed.

I am reminded of Steve because The Woo suffered greatly with his death but is still functioning.

Contributions would be welcome. Here is an email sent out by his wife Glenda Jo.

Dear WOO Friends:

It has been far too long since you have heard from the World of Opportunity, but we now have to turn to our friends to help sustain us. There have been many changes at the WOO in the last few years following the untimely death of our founder and guiding spirit, Steve Orel. Over the last few years, the students who come to see us are younger and younger and, today, we are seeing 15-year-olds pushed out of high school and referred by their schools to us. We have just learned that other agencies that get these referrals are paid for each student they receive, but we have never received such an offer, although we are now regularly receive funds from the City of Birmingham. We have moved to a new location and, even without a listed phone number, we are seeing dozens of new students monthly. We keep a constant number of 15 students in our Patient Care Assistant (PCA) program and we have over thirty names on the waiting list. Almost everyone who has completed our Patient Care Assistant (PCA) program has found employment.

In short, the WOO has been remarkably successful in its mission. Unfortunately (and you knew this was coming), we have been less successful in getting money for our work, which is why we are writing you. We have been working virtually without pay for months and, while we have grant proposals in the works, we cannot sustain ourselves without immediate funding. The good new is that we have a new web site at and the even better news is that if you go to it, you can donate directly to us through PayPal. If all of you on our email list donate as little as $10.00, and as much as you can, and forward this appeal to your friends who believe in education, we will be able to continue our work until our other funding requests come through. Regardless, the WOO has always sustained itself through the generosity of hundreds of our supporters across the country. Because of the crush of the work, we have neglected our friends and for that we apologize. We hope you will forgive us. If you do, we will not make that mistake again.

I thank you and, even more importantly, our wonderful students thank you for the keeping their world of opportunity open to them.

David Gespass on behalf of the WOO Board


  1. I laughed and I cried reading this. My soul sister Gloria Pipkin and I exchanged e-mails with Steve 3, 4, 5 times a day.

    The "miracle" of Steve being there in traffic to show the way to the WOO is wonderfully comic, miraculous, and testimony to the WOO itself.

    When we decided to invent the Courage in Education Award and to give it to Steve, he wouldn't accept it as an individual. He would accept it on as a WOO award. Very typical of Steve. I got it in my head that we had to have contributions from every state. The Mississippi teacher who sent $44--in cash-- representing $1 for every child in her class lives in my heart forever. She wrote a loving description of every child.

    Yes, we got a contribution from every state. The last one was $1 from a conservative Delaware politico whose niece(living in another state) persuaded him to send it. I gave the envelopes to the WOO, hoping that the postmarks, would send off rays of love.

  2. Susan
    I find it amazing that despite the limited contact I had with Steve, every minute seems to be loaded with memories.


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