COLUMBIA –Kathryn Fishman-Weaver first recognized her passion for community service when she was 8 and serving meals in a soup kitchen with her fellow second graders.
"I went with my teacher Ms. Williams, and we helped serve a meal and clean dishes," she said. "I felt special to be going and pretty empowered as an 8-year-old serving adults."
Today, Fishman-Weaver, 31, is a teacher at Rock Bridge High School and sponsor of Rock Bridge Reaches Out, a community service organization she helped found 13 years ago when she was a senior at the school.
In 1999, she wanted to help people in Columbia without food or a place to live, others who had disabilities and an entire community who wanted cleaner water. But mostly she wanted to find outlets for her fellow teens to help, too.
When she joined Rock Bridge High School as a special education teacher, she discovered more needs in the community, so she simply picked up where she left off.
Rock Bridge Reaches Out is divided into nine core groups that take on volunteer projects throughout the year. One bags lunches at the food bank, another makes fleece blankets for Project Linus. The Stream Team addresses water pollution. A couple times a year, the club undertakes a group effort.
The organization is run by three student presidents, who organize the big group activities. Each core group has two or three leaders and 20-50 members.
"What makes Rock Bridge Reaches Out so successful is the fact that we have the core groups," co-president Kelsey Harper said. "I think that creates a big sense of community that has the support and structure of a big club, but, at the same time, a community within your core group."
Harper said Fishman-Weaver, now a gifted education teacher, is a big factor in the club's energy.
“She is wonderful to work with and is a great resource whenever we have questions about how to get something done,” Harper said.
A Contagious Culture
The original idea of service came to Fishman-Weaver and a friend, Dave Wax when they were on a band trip with St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in the summer of 1999. The two decided to pitch their idea of a club for volunteers to Kathy Ritter, then assistant principal for student activities.
“I wanted to make a difference, and he wanted leadership," Fishman-Weaver said. "When you piece these together with a teenager’s energy and enthusiasm, great things happen.”
Roughly 200 kids among a student body of 800 jumped on it. This year, Rock Bridge Reaches Out has participation from almost 500 of the 1,800 students in the school — a record for Rock Bridge, she said.
"It's part of our culture, and that culture is contagious," she said.
Throughout her involvement, Fishman-Weaver has become a dependable adviser with a willingness to help students, said Nidhi Khurana, one of the co-presidents of Rock Bridge Reaches Out.
"She is charismatic, incredibly smart and inspirational," Khurana said. "It's hard to put her and her personality into words because she means so much to everyone at Rock Bridge."
Generations of Inspiration
Fishman-Weaver's enthusiasm for service has roots in her childhood. She grew up with parents who encouraged community involvement, whether helping with church service projects, volunteering at school or spending time at the library.
"Like most people, I am who I am because of my family," Fishman-Weaver said. "My grandmothers were both teachers, and growing up, my parents talked to us a lot about social justice and peace."
As a student at Rock Bridge, she considered a future in social work or medicine but ended up graduating from MU with degrees in sociology and English.
"I liked anything that had to do with literacy — helping my mom with the writing lab and then doing the young writers program in college," Fishman-Weaver said. "All of those opportunities that involve language and story telling really blended my interests."
She continued to volunteer at Rock Bridge and Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center throughout her time at MU.
Transition to Teaching
After college, she packed up and moved to California to become a publicist for a social justice nonprofit organization, and she began volunteering in the Latino community.
“It had a huge impression on me to become a teacher,” Fishman-Weaver said. “Especially in California where the Latino population was so large, I wanted to help that community.”
She decided to attend San Francisco State University and earn a master's degree with an emphasis in special education.
While she was going to school, she landed her first job, teaching first grade in Oakland, Calif. She taught there for three years.
“Service was cool, but I missed direct action, being with people who needed help every day,” Fishman-Weaver said about her transition from publicist to teacher.
Return to Rock Bridge
She initially came back to Rock Bridge in special education, then became an English teacher and eventually moved to the gifted program.
“Rock Bridge is a boomerang school," she said. "An unbelievable number of teachers are alumni."
What she learned through social work was not lost; in fact, it folded seamlessly into her teaching methods.
“Part of my teaching philosophy still centers around service, getting kids involved and making a difference,” she said. “Blending or blurring or bridging those lines of teaching and service is what I do and what I teach my kids to do.”
When she taught English, she encouraged her students to partner with others in Rock Bridge’s community skills program for a literature project.
"I had a group of boys — really fantastic boys, thoughtful, smart, smart boys ... and they came to talk to me when it was all done and just said what a profound impact it had on them and how they would carry that with them," Fishman-Weaver said.
Positive feedback from students only fuels her to continue her job as a teacher.
"My favorite teacher moments are the times when I can see my students strengthened as a result of their giving to others," she said. "Kids like to see that they can make a difference, and they do, again and again and again."
While she was in California, she married Chris Weaver, whom she met while a student at San Francisco State. They adopted a boy, James, now 13, and have a daughter, Lilah, 15 months.
Fishman-Weaver said they try to pass their values and lessons on to their children.
“We as parents try to lead by example,” she said. “We encourage diverse organizations, where they can meet lots of different people from different walks of life.”
One such example came from her own childhood. Growing up, her family participated in the "adopt a child for Christmas" program through St. Andrew's Lutheran Church, an experience which she continues to do with her kids.
Among training for a half-marathon with her son, church activities and a photography business, she stays involved. Yet, no matter how busy her life might get, she always makes time for her Rock Bridge Reaches Out students.
“My work is empowering the kids to make a difference,” Fishman-Weaver said.
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.