As Houstonians, we are all familiar with the way our community over the past few years was affected by the pandemic and natural disasters. We had to change the way we learned, the way we lived and even how we interacted with others. But one thing that remained was the need to serve our students and the communities we reside in.
Through it all, YES Prep White Oak Secondary’s White Oak Humanitarian Society never took a day off.
Started by Ronald Castro, a teacher and educator of 13 years who currently teaches Interpersonal Studies at White Oak, the Humanitarian Society is an organization that has aided in countless social initiatives throughout the city and within its own campus walls to create local and national impact.
The origin story
The Humanitarian Society was an established group when Castro began his teaching career. Once he was introduced to the work carried out by this society, he knew this would be a lifelong project. Castro knew the work found him for a reason and that the Humanitarian Society had the potential to do wonderful things for the city. “At this point, I’ve been doing the Humanitarian Society outreach going on 10 years”, he said. “When I came to YES Prep in 2016, I brought the society with me.”
When Castro introduced the society to White Oak’s Class of 2020, he presented to them the amazing life experiences that come with volunteer work and it blossomed from there. The Humanitarian Society has increased every single year since its creation at White Oak—starting with 20 kids to now over 120 active members that range from sixth to twelfth grade. An amazing part of the society is that students have grown with the Humanitarian Society and created leaders such as Mary Robles and Aly Hernandez, two White Oak seniors that joined their freshman year, the first year Castro joined the White Oak staff. Mary serves as the current president of the society while Aly is a former president of the club.
The humanitarian way
In any given moment, the Humanitarian Society can be found serving people throughout the community in a myriad of ways. Given the number of volunteer projects they tackle a year, their reputation now speaks for itself. Castro pointed out that “community organizations will call us, and we will partner up wherever we need to go. If there is a disaster, as long as we are okay, we will find a way to go out and fill some needs.”
And these are not small needs. The Humanitarian Society has been asked to help aid those who lost their homes during Hurricane Harvey and even Houstonians now who are still recovering. Other more recent examples include outreach to refugees from Afghanistan who had to make sudden and significant sacrifices being uprooted from their homes. Mary is currently working with the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Affairs) to provide friendship bracelets to give to refugees from Afghanistan to feel supported and for them to know they are not alone.
What makes the Humanitarian Society so well driven is that the students are wise beyond their years. They use the opportunity to volunteer to learn more about how to be better stewards of the community through empathy, compassion and understanding. “We focus on supporting those whose circumstances are out of their control and finding ways to help them out in any way we can,” said Aly. “That translates to the club because we know that we are making an impact not only in our school but in the Houston community.”
Humanitarian Society at work on campus
At White Oak, the Humanitarian Society is heavily involved with year-round and annual events. Like the reputation they have in the community, the society is known to be helpful and White Oak staffers know they can expect to see them active across the school. Mary shares one of the many ways the society helps throughout the school.
“On campus, we put together decorations for the inside of the school anytime we have personal or seasonal events, like Hispanic Heritage Month. We will decorate the halls with leaders of Hispanic heritage and more. We’re the go to crew for every culture month.”
The significance of volunteering
There are two major growth areas students experience when joining the Humanitarian Society. One is understanding the importance of volunteering and the other is discovering how volunteering teaches valuable life skills.
On the importance of volunteering, Aly remembers how her mindset began to change during Hurricane Harvey. “There was a woman whose garage was submerged in water and we came to help clean it out. Although all the items were damaged, they were still important to her. After we finished, she thanked us for coming out because this was weighing heavy on her shoulders. Being of an older age, it was hard for her to do, to get rid of everything. That is when it turned into a sense of duty for me. I saw how we were making this enormous impact on her life and I wanted to make an impact on others. That event changed my whole mindset on volunteering.”
Mary shared how the more you help others, the more you learn. “Generally, at every event or every activity we do, I learn something new every time. For example, we would have this activity to create new quilts and heart monitor patches for veterans at the hospital. I had no idea how to sew at all, but my mother had a sewing machine and fabric, so when I told her that I was trying to make a quilt she helped me. I learned how to make whole 8x8 and 10x10 quilts and a heart monitor patch too. It’s pretty amazing, how after every event I am learning something new and a new skill I can take with me.”
Accolades along the way
For the Humanitarian Society, the impact of their work is the only reward they need. However, the society has been recognized over the past few years for several accomplishments, including receiving The Congressional Award and VFW Teacher of the Year.
“We don’t expect recognition for the work we do so when I was president, and we received the congressional award that was surreal. Again, we never expect praise for our work, so when you get this national recognition it is crazy because you realize people see what you are doing.,” said Aly.
Castro has individually received awards for his efforts with the Humanitarian Society, and while these are great affirmations of the importance of the work the society is doing his mission remains the same, staying committed to the service. Castro added, “Doing this for so long, I had never really received any award myself. Then last year, I was the VFW Teacher of The Year for the whole state of Texas. That is when it finally hit me, people are noticing. The society also received recognition from the City of Houston that day and later we also received the Shelia Jackson Lee Award. I was recognized by Precinct 2 Adriana Garcia’s office for Hispanic Heritage and my service to the community.” Through the Humanitarian Society, Castro helps YES Prep White Oak students see the difference they are making. “As a humanitarian, you do not have to be in charge, you just have to be willing to do the work and make a difference. A lot of people in need just want someone to listen to because that is all a part of the recovery.”
The Humanitarian Society is open to all YES Prep students to join. If you are interested in joining, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow White Oak Humanitarian Society on Instagram. Lastly, for additional campus news please visit the campus website at whiteoak.yesprep.org.