Palmetto High School junior Michael Elmaleh had an idea for a community service project. He wanted to conduct a book drive. But when he talked with a friend about the project, he learned that another student had just completed a book drive that resulted in 3,000 books being donated to migrant children.
Instead of abandoning his plan for a drive, Elmaleh modified it and joined with Jake McMaster, founder of Mac’s Library, to collect clothing instead.
“We support three migrant camps in South Miami-Dade and Homestead,” Elmaleh says. “There are 300 kids, about 100 kids in each camp. We came up with the idea of clothing because some kids would like a clean shirt instead of five books.”
Elmaleh and his friend contacted teachers about the drive and those that agreed received wrapped donation boxes delivered to their classrooms.
“I would give speeches about what the charity was for,” Elmaleh says. “It started slow, but once I started giving speeches, I got more clothes. One teacher also gave students extra credit for participation and that classroom had hundreds of pounds of clothes.”
In the speeches he’d contrast the lives of the migrant children against those attending Palmetto.
“I would ask the kids who had a car, or whose parents have a car and who has a jacket,” he says. “These migrant kids don’t have the luxuries that we do; they don’t have cars and their parents don’t have cars. And they don’t have jackets.”
They collected the clothing in the classroom donation boxes every Friday for two months. Occasionally they had to empty the boxes earlier because of the large volume of the donations.
On the first trip to the migrant camps, they distributed about 600 pounds of clothing. By the end of the donation period, Elmaleh estimates that they had collected 1,200 pounds of clothing.
Initially they washed and sorted the donations and even threw away some items that were too badly worn. But in talking to the head of the camp, they were advised not to bother, that they would take care of that duty at the camp.
“Some people asked me why we weren’t doing stuff for Haiti,” Elmaleh says. “But this is in our own backyard. We have to help ourselves before we can help others. People don’t really understand how lucky they are. It’s amazing what a difference a few miles can make.”
Going to the camp, Elmaleh says he realized that the migrant families have many of needs. He understood just how poor the families were when he saw a an assortment of canned foods stacked on a table. When he asked why the cans were there, he was told that whenever families did not have money for food, they could take cans off the table, no questioned asked.
Elmaleh says that at some point his group will sponsor a canned food drive. Now that the clothing drive is done, they are working on the next project — a drive to collect school supplies for the migrant kids.
“When a new kid enters the migrant camp, they get a new book bag,” he says. “We’re really trying to get school supplies.”
Aside from his efforts with Mac’s Closet, Elmaleh is involved in the Amnesty International Club at Palmetto. The club writes letters to public officials about issues of the day, including human trafficking.
Early in his high school career, Elmaleh participated in the wrestling program. But he says he realized that things weren’t going to get any easier in the Cambridge program and he had to choose between sports and getting good grades. He decided to study harder and get good grades.
— By Linda Rodriguez Bernfeld