First published in the Dec. 2 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.
James Madison Elementary School had always piqued the interest of Pat and Kate Amsbry, who lived just two blocks away and often passed the pretty white stucco building.
The couple had always felt passionate about education, and with some extra time on their hands now that their own children had graduated, they reached out to forge a connection with their neighborhood school. As luck would have it, Principal Noemi Orduña was brand-new on the job and also eager to learn more about the surrounding community.
After an initial meeting in 2016, they became fast friends, but when Amsbry asked how he and his wife could help, Orduña gave pause. “Pat wanted to know what we needed, but when you’re at a school that needs so many things … you name it and we probably need it. So, I asked him, ‘What’s your passion?’”
Soon after, the Amsbrys sought out and funded art supplies for the entire school, donated thousands of books through an annual book drive at their house, and volunteered endless hours as reading tutors and food distribution aids. But their true passion comes to light in talking about “this amazing little school,” and engaging neighbors and friends to join the effort to support Madison. The donations and offers of help became so generous, in fact, they decided to create a nonprofit organization to provide financial oversight and to support the school for many years into the future.
After “serendipitously” meeting David Coher, cofounder of Emergency Charitable Services, they knew their fate was sealed. “We shared our passion and vision for what we were doing in our community, and David, who also lives nearby, was totally on board,” recalled Pat Amsbry.
Coher offered to handle the financial end of the nonprofit through his company, and together, they cofounded Friends of Madison Elementary, a foundation to create more educational equity and access to opportunities for Madison students.
Recognized as a Title 1 school, Madison Elementary has students that are considered lower income, qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Many students speak English as a second language; others experience homelessness or are in transitional housing; and others are in the foster system. As a result of the school’s needs, the Friends of Madison Elementary began plotting a bigger mission: “To help the educators at Madison create a more equitable learning environment, provide teachers and students access to more resources and leverage our community relationships to unlock greater opportunities for every student.”
At first, the Friends of Madison Elementary worked quietly, behind the scenes. (“Noemi once joked that I acted like I was in the witness protection program,” Pat Amsbry recalled, laughing.)
But as their donations and efforts mounted, Orduña was eager for the couple to meet the children and families at school, and vice versa. She also was conscious that fallout from the presidential election in 2016 was hitting home. With so much disparagement about immigration on the national scale, and threats of deportation to immigrants living in the United States, real fear began hitting the school community. Some children were staying home.
“It was a terrifying time for our families, even as adults, so imagine how the children felt. Some parents were scared to leave the house, or walk in the streets to bring the kids,” Orduña said. “So, I felt it was really important for the students of the families around us to know that help can come from kind people around us, no matter what they look like. There was a community out there caring for them.”
Pat Amsbry, likewise, was impacted by hearing some of the parents’ stories. “It was tough to hear how frightened these people were, living just a few blocks away. They’re just sweet kids and families, trying to get by,” he said. “I wondered, if they’re going through this, how is that impacting their ability to learn?”
That’s when the Amsbrys decided to change up their game. Though they never wanted accolades or recognition, they thought being “visible and welcoming” would help foster support. “That’s when I decided, I would go out of my way, I would cross the street to say ‘Hi,’ I even told people where I lived in case they ever needed a safe place. I realized, they all needed to feel supported in order for the kids to be supported,” Amsbry said.
Since then, the Friends of Madison volunteers and donors have become a consistent group of cheerleaders for the students. Together with Orduña, teachers and staff, the nonprofit has helped tackle the school’s chronic student absenteeism by working to change student and parent culture around the importance of school attendance. Friends of Madison brought monthly prizes, pizza parties and encouragement to students who were on time and in school each day, a strategy that has worked.
“Our school attendance has improved dramatically — that means the kids want to be in school,” Orduña said. “The kids get so excited when we announce perfect attendance pizza parties. There are balloons, cupcakes, music, it’s a real party! They get competitive about it too, in a fun way.”
During the pandemic, Friends of Madison worked hard to procure grocery gift cards and helped with food distribution at the school, along with refilling school and art supplies for students to take home. They’ve also organized school uniform donations from other area schools. The nonprofit has also created “experiences” for the families, giving away Dodgers tickets, restaurant gift cards, museum entrances and much more.
“We want to bridge the gap between private and public schools; every child deserves equal access and opportunity. … some of these experiences our students would never have otherwise,” said Kate Amsbry. “With the pizza parties, it seems like such a simple thing, but we want to celebrate these kids and celebrate them coming to school every day. So much of life is just showing up — we want them to know what a big deal that is.”
Going forward, Friends of Madison is eager to double down and create even more opportunities for their students, through experiences, enrichment, reading, supplies, and everything else.
“We are here to bridge the gaps in access to education,” said Pat Amsbry. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that all of our hopes and dreams for our children are really fundamentally the same. We want our kids to grow up to be healthy and happy and get a good education, to find love and to be a productive member of society. Each child deserves that same shot, so more needs to be done.”
Friends of Madison is encouraging others across Pasadena to support their neighborhood schools. For more information on how to volunteer or donate, visit friendsofmadison.org.