Teacher-student relationship helps COVID-19 nurses to find joy, hope

Rachel Windler-Freitag
Rachel Windler-Freitag

When Rachel Windler-Freitag taught fifth grader Sunny Alicia at School 29 in Rochester, NY, she knew there was something special about her. 

As a trusted confidant and mentor, Freitag helped Alicia get through arguably the most difficult time in her life without even knowing the extent of Alicia’s issues. During these vulnerable years, Alicia was being sexually abused.

Although Freitag was not aware of the abuse, she was able to help Alicia with anger management issues and became a beacon of hope and steady guidance, which Alicia credits to be a catalyst to her ultimate healing.

Alicia credits Freitag for helping her rise above those challenges to become an LPN in a Rochester, NY hospital and founder and CEO of Sunny Side Wholistics. She currently is working on the COVID-19 floor and sees and experiences the unimaginable heartbreak, frustration and fatigue associated with caring for those afflicted. She has kept in contact with her former teacher and mentor and reached out to her to see if she had any ideas on how to boost the staff and patients on her wing.

In her typical form, Freitag, now deputy director of multiple Charter Schools USA schools in Florida, did have some ideas. She asked principals that she oversees to come up with ways their students could become involved in a community service project to provide motivation and positive energy for the caregivers and COVID patients in her former student’s hospital.

One of her principals rose to the challenge.

Corinne Baez, principal of Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead presented the idea to her team and soon, more than 100 flyers, posters, banners, and bracelets were created and shipped. Dubbed the Spreading Sunshine project, students were excited to be able to spread a little Florida sunshine to the hard working nurses and staff in New York.

“Everybody has had to deal with COVID, but the people in New York seem to have had one of the most difficult times with it,” said Andy Borges, a fifth grade student. “Here in Florida, we had a lot of people suffering, but at least we had sunshine to brighten our days. We wanted to share that.”

Sunny Alicia

Spreading Sunshine was created not only as a testament to Florida’s renowned weather, but also in consideration of Alicia’s company, Sunny Side Wholistics. The business was created to help others, who like Alicia, are survivors of sexual abuse and trauma. Her diet, exercise and detox program focus on the positive things people can bring into their lives, not just what they want to remove from their lives.

“Sitting on a leather couch taking medicine to cure my pain was not the only answer for me or many other trauma victims,” Alicia said. “I decided that I needed a much more wholistic approach to healing from the inside out, which is why Sunny Side Wholistics was born.”

“When Ms. Freitag told me about the Spreading Sunshine project, I just knew that would brighten up the days of so many of my colleagues and patients on our floor,” Alicia added. “When we received the packages, I could see a light return to their eyes just knowing that a group of students thousands of miles away cared enough to send them words of encouragement and well-wishes. It really means a lot.”

According to Freitag, this entire project was a tremendous success for all involved.

“I think as we continue to navigate through this pandemic, there are a lot of people who need healing,” Freitag said. “The end result of recognizing our hard-working essential healthcare workers not only helped them, it also provided an outlet for so many students to feel like they could be involved in a solution — something bigger than themselves. It takes away a little bit of that helplessness many of us feel. I think that’s exactly what Jeri has been accomplishing all along.”

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