From the narrow vantage point of his boyhood home in a Southeast Side neighborhood in Chicago, young Brett Weiss figured the big, wide world outside his door was pretty simple.
"To me, the whole world was either Jewish or non-Jewish," Weiss remembers.
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How to helpTo make a tax-deductible donation to the Bernard and Elsie Weiss Dago, Kenya, Scholarship Fund, go to www.villagevolunteers.org/donate, select "donate online" and choose "Weiss Scholarship Fund" on the drop-down menu, or mail a check to Village Volunteers, 5100 S. Dawson St., Suite 202, Seattle, WA 98118, and write "Weiss Scholarship Fund" on the memo line. To learn more about the charity, visit brettteach.wikispaces.com/Dago+Scholarship+Fund. To see photos of the trips and learn about Weiss' classes, visit www.brettteach.wikispaces.com.
The world is far more diverse and far more complicated in Bartlett High School's vibrant room C318, where the 62-year-old Weiss deems Syria as the "topic of the week" in the International Relations class he teaches.
Yet, by expanding into global issues, the teacher makes the world seem much smaller. Weiss' classroom walls sport photographs and advice from all corners of the globe. Alongside quotes from Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein and Maya Angelou is a plea from author Haim Ginott to "make our children more human." The most powerful quotation might be the simple affirmation attributed to "A Kenyan Student Doing Homework." It says, "Never Give Up."
Weiss knows that Kenyan student because the teacher never gave up on his quest to make the world a little better. In 2011, Weiss founded the Bernard and Elsie Weiss Scholarship Fund, which sends poor children from Dago, Kenya, to high school.
The desire to broaden his horizons and help others was sparked by his friendship during grade school with Freddy Weisberg, whose parents still bore the numbers tattooed on their arms at the concentration camp in Auschwitz.
"Back then we didn't talk about it," Weiss says of the Holocaust. "Then you begin to learn these things happened before and happened since."
At the end of his freshman year at Northern Illinois University, where he would graduate in 1973 with a degree in political science and economics, Weiss remembers being shaken by the shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University during a demonstration protesting the Vietnam War. Protests turned violent at Northern Illinois as well, with cars overturned and classes canceled.
"Mom came to take me home," says Weiss, who chose to remain on campus and assured her, "Mom, this is going to be a learning experience."
The teen who went to high school just so he could play baseball transformed into a man who wanted to learn about the world. He got his master's degree and began his teaching career. But with his wife, Christine, teaching third grade and their children, Amber and Gabriel, in the plans, Weiss gave up teaching for a more lucrative job selling software. His sales career enabled the family to buy a home in Naperville.
As soon as their children grew old enough, Weiss found a teaching job at Bartlett High School.
"This is my first love," he says of teaching. But he also wanted to get involved in something beyond the classroom. He made his move in 2006, after his parents had died and Weiss was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
"Look, I'm not a kid. I'm not going to live forever," he told himself. "If I'm going to do something, let's do it now."
Successfully treated for his cancer, Weiss searched online for a worthy worldwide endeavor. He signed up with Village Volunteers, a nonprofit agency that hooked him up for a 2½-week stay in the rural African village of Dago, Kenya, during the summer of 2009. He voluntarily helped young students eager to learn in school even though they had lost parents and other relatives to AIDS and often shared a small mud hut with a dozen relatives. Seeing one student anguished when his pen ran out of ink, Weiss gave him a pen, and the boy teared up.
"It was a pen, and it meant everything to him," Weiss says. The experience was life-changing.
"This was great. I've done it," Weiss remembers thinking as he boarded the plane for home. "By the time I landed back here, I was like, 'I've got to go back.' You meet the people there, they are the nicest, most polite people. They have nothing, and they might be the happiest people I've ever met. They don't know their life is hard."
Through the scholarship program named in honor of his parents, and with the help of his students, co-workers and friends, Weiss began sending shoes, school supplies and money to finance high school educations for some of the African village's best and brightest. The fund even paid for a cow, which the grateful villagers named Bartlett.
The program has grown every year and now pays to educate seven students. A four-year high-school education costs about $2,800. Weiss sponsors one of the students on his own, and he spends a few thousand dollars to return to Africa every two years.
"He is a wonderful man," says Bartlett Associate Principal Steve Jaracka.
"I didn't want to just be somebody giving money. I wanted to be involved and understand," Weiss says.
That world view rubs off on his students, whom Weiss motivates to stand up and become something more than mere observers of global problems. "My job is to turn you from a bystander to an upstander," Weiss says.
A student who happens to be Shiite Muslim helped start a club called the Upstanders. Staying after school as the faculty sponsor of the club, Weiss gives a lot of freedom to the nearly three dozen members to decide what causes to take on, but his charity focuses on Dago.
"I wish I had about 10 lives. There's a lot of places I'd like to go," he says. Originally hesitant to talk about his charity work for fear of bragging, Weiss says, "I needed to change that because it isn't about me. These are good kids who work hard."
When a Bartlett student challenges him by noting that there are American kids who work hard and need help, Weiss says he realizes that, but doesn't understand why the geography matters.
"See that map?" Weiss says, as he points to a world map featuring every nation in a different color. "I don't see the colors. I just look at it as one map. A kid is a kid."