Paper Clips & Prejudice

“Happiness makes me cry more than anything else.”–Holocaust Survivor speaking in Paper Clips

By Amy Sondova Little known fact–I am really into documentaries, nature shows, and reading memoirs. I love to learn about the rich history of the planet, the intricacies of our world, and the stories of other humans.

So I decided to rent a documentary called Paper Clips from Blockbuster. It’s a story about a Holocaust project put together by middle school kids in Tennessee. After the Whitwell Middle School’s assistant principal went to a conference about diversity, he and some others realized that the kids in this white bread small town had no clue what the rest of the world was like–that they had no idea what diversity really meant and how intolerance can cause people to do crazy things. Therefore, they started teaching their students about the horrors of the Holocaust (read Wikipedia entry).

Through research, the students learned that paper clips were invented by a Norwegian Jew named Johan Vaaler. Furthermore, it was discovered that Norwegians wore paper clips on their lapels during WWII as a sign of protect against Nazism and Hitler. The students decided to try to collect six million paper clips to commemorate the six million Jews that were killed during the Holocaust. Eventually, they managed to bring in over 30 million paper clips. Not bad for a bunch of middle schoolers.

They went on to house 11 million (six million for the Jews and five million for the other Holocaust victims like gypsies, gays, clergy, opposition) paper clips in an authentic German rail car–one that was used to transports thousands of Jews and other victims to death camps (history of Children’s Holocaust Memorial Rail Car). Now a memorial stands at Whitwell Middle School, built not only by the children, but by the hands of many in the small town of 1600 citizens. Although the way, the people of Whitwell met Holocaust survivors and others who shared their stories with the students, and in turn, the students shared their stories with the world. In addition to the paper clips, the student who worked on The Holocaust Project received over 25,000 pieces of mail, including a suitcase full of notes written to Anne Frank from a German who deeply regretted his or her role in the Holocaust.

While the documentary is slow-moving at times and the music can be a little hooky, it was a good and interesting flick. Plus, I realized the power that teenagers have to change the status quo, especially when they have adults who are willing to encourage, equip, and help them accomplish their dreams, even when they’re as silly as collecting paper clips. What these students managed to do not only impacted their lives, but the lives of those in their community, and in turn, the world. Pretty awesome for a bunch of middle schoolers.

Here are a few things I learned…

1. Adults need to make the effort to educate teens and go along with their idealistic ideas. True, the Holocaust Project was started by adults, but it’s the students who researched and developed the paper clip idea. By allowing teens to take ownership of a project, they come up with great ideas that are generally outside the box. Life happens outside the box, so let’s give teens leadership and allow them to be creative.

2. Teens do care and want to make a difference; they often don’t know where to start. If it hadn’t been for a couple of caring adults, this project would have never happened. They were dissatisfied with the lives they saw their students leading, so they developed a project that allowed the kids to discover life outside their comfort zones. Once they saw the needs, the teens stepped in and saw they could do something that was important. They were playing the part in a very important story.

3. By engaging in a big project, a teen can look back and see a success story. Whether it’s a summer missions trip, collecting paper clips, or a painting the walls in the youth room, students lives can be changed. They can look back when times get rough and say, “I did that once and maybe I can do it again.”

4. Connecting with each other, loving adults, the community, and others is a great way for teens to learn about ministry. Get serious about making a difference in the world by getting out in your community, hanging with the seniors at church, and finding ways to honor those who live around you. Don’t be so insulated with your kids. Let them explore the richness of the world that God created. What’s the point in hiding your light under a bushel?

5. It all starts with a crazy idea from a dreamer just like you. Adults play a key role in this whole thing. Yes, you will be met with opposition and it won’t be easy. Some days you’ll wonder why you started this thing at all. Remember that the outcome is beautiful, and it will glorify God, change lives, and maybe even change you.

One student said, “We’ll never look at a paper clip the same way again.” After seeing this moving documentary, neither will I.

Print copy of scribble.

Check out the links below for more information.

The Paper Clip movie trailer from Lion’s Gate Films…

The Story of the Holocaust Project Continues

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