Gina Camelli didn’t set out to be a hero. In fact, she didn’t even intend to be recognized for her efforts. Instead, Camelli’s mission was simple: to give back to the community where she was raised. And that’s just what she did.
Warren, Ohio lies just thirteen miles north of Youngstown, the former center of steel production, and now one of the poorest cities in the country. Both cities’ populations have steadily been on the decline each decade, with unemployment rates surpassing both the state and national average.
But it wasn’t always this way. Thirty years ago, when Camelli was a student at Howland High School, the school where she now teaches Advanced Placement Psychology, “the poverty level was around 6%,” she says. Today, it lingers closer to 40%.
As the economy took a downturn, Camelli started to notice that not enough students had access to basic necessities, such as food, clothing and personal hygiene products.
According to National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold. But even that statistic may be undershooting just how many are struggling to cover basic expenses, which NCCP estimates to be closer to 43%.
This economic insecurity can have a lasting impact on students – affecting everything from the way they learn, to their ability to cope with social and emotional issues. Knowing this, Camelli decided to create Paw Pantry, which she defines as “a place where students can get whatever they need.” And that's hardly an exaggeration.
Whether it's for food, clothes, school supplies or personal hygeine products, students and their parents can go on the district's website and fill out a request form for Paw Pantry products. From there, they can choose to pick their items up – or have them delivered – at school.
Camelli’s call to action was met with an overwhelmingly positive response when she attended her high school reunion in 2017. It also made her former classmates – many of whom have since left Warren – aware of how their alma mater has changed over the years. Soon, “money started pouring in from all over the country, all over the world,” she says.
In just a year and a half since the Paw Pantry began, Camelli has accumulated an abundance of perishable and non-perishable food, clothing, lunch boxes, backpacks, school supplies – even home goods, including a refrigerator, a washer and dryer, and a stove, which she in part credits to a $10,000 grant she received from Hardee’s, the fast-food chain.
Still, Camelli addresses more than just her students’ primary needs; students also look to Camelli for her emotional support. “I was having some personal issues last year, and Ms. Camelli helped me through them,” explains Gabrielle Blake, a senior at Howland High School, where she had Camelli as a teacher.
Camelli actively shows her students the power of connection. “I’m definitely kinder because of Ms. Camelli,” Blake says. Through her warmth, Camelli has created what Blake calls “a family.” “Ms. Camelli is a mother, but she’s also a mother figure for all of us,” Blake says. “She’s really caring and watches out for people who might be having issues.”
For Camelli, this dedication just comes with the job. “Teaching isn’t just something you do in the classroom,” Camelli explains. “I think of my kids as my responsibility, and if I can help them in any way, I will.” And she hardly sees herself as a novelty. “I would give the shirt off my back for my students, but most teachers would do the same,” she says.
After a year of teacher walkouts around the country, stories like Camelli’s are a testament to a fact that has become abundantly clear: teachers are on the frontlines, and they’re ready to fight for their students. While Census Bureau data can measure the progress – or decline – of a city, teachers watch it unfold in real time.
In the world of teaching, there are no defined workspaces, no set hours, and for some teachers, no breaks in the school day. But that doesn’t stop Camelli. “She gives so much, and then she just continues giving more,” Blake says. “I don’t think Ms. Camelli takes the time to recognize how great she really is. She just does it.”
Camelli is a community activist, a mental health advocate, and by many people’s standards, she’s most certainly a hero, but she doesn’t see herself that way. She just thinks of herself as a teacher. However, many would argue there’s no difference.
This piece is a part of a series for NBC News Learn's #LoveToLearn campaign, which is celebrating teachers making a difference during Teacher Appreciation Week. Want to join? Tweet who made you #LoveToLearn here!