Compassionate Community: Shining a Light in the Darkness

Compassion: The ability to understand and empathize with other cultures and personal situations and to respond in love, kindness, and generosity. Involves a desire to alleviate others’ suffering through action.

– One of 16 Habits of the Mind Providence School seeks to develop in our graduates

An uncomfortable time

In 2017, when I accepted a position to teach at Providence, A Santa Barbara Christian School, I found myself in an uncomfortable limbo. While enjoying my interactions and experiences with new students and colleagues, I found myself grieving a loss I hadn’t anticipated in this transition: I was missing community. 

Having left a school where I actively participated as a teacher, coach, mentor, and colleague for six years, I recognized changing schools would come with unique challenges (my 100-mile round trip commute from Camarillo to Santa Barbara being one of them). It  took me weeks, however, to realize that the confusing ache in my heart came from missing meaningful connections with others. And even though I knew these connections would eventually come with time and effort, it was at that moment the power of true community became real to me. I mourned the loss of one community while looking forward to opportunities to build and grow relationships within a new community.  

It wasn’t long before I felt a personal connection to the Providence community and—even after a few twists and turns in the road—I remained confident God had led me to this school in his timing and for his purpose. Two years later, in the fall of 2019, the Providence community shone brightly for Jesus in a compassionate way that not only directly impacted me, but produced ripple effects felt by others beyond Santa Barbara. 

I am grateful for this opportunity to share my story.

A dark time

A year after the 2018 merger between Providence, A Santa Barbara Christian School and El Montecito School, the newly branded Providence School saw a need for two sixth grade classes. My principal asked me to move up a grade, where I would continue to teach many of my former fifth grade students. I complied, partnering with April Torres to create a cohesive sixth grade program. In all honesty, I wasn’t thrilled to be changing grade levels, but little did I know God had ordained this change for a greater purpose. 

Fast forward two months into the school year when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. According to my medical team, my prognosis was “the best it could be,” but after surgery I would need six rounds of chemotherapy. 

My world was rocked. I was scared and I was angry. All sorts of emotions and thoughts swirled in my mind. It was hard to hear encouragement. Praying was even harder. 

I vividly remember driving to work and finally crying out to God, “Fine! I’ll do it! But I need you to somehow be glorified in all this!” Immediately, his peace that passes all understanding filled my heart and set my feet on a firmer foundation. Later that day, as I told a room full of students what I would be facing, I was able to do it with a calm voice and a new determination I hadn’t felt until then. We prayed together and the journey soon began. 

I could tell a myriad of stories from this season in my life but there are a few key ones that encapsulate the compassion demonstrated by the Providence School community. I shared these stories with doctors, nurses, family, friends, and anyone who read my CaringBridge journal, which had over 3,000 views. The Lord used the compassionate Providence community to shine the light of Jesus in a dark time in my life and that light was seen by many.  

I would like to share  three snapshot stories out of the many acts of loving kindness I experienced.

Thursday mornings

My chemo treatments took place on Thursdays, every three weeks, from 8:30 am until 3:30 pm. I began each treatment day with a consultation with my oncologist and then went to the chemo lounge to begin treatment. Remember how I hadn’t been happy to change my assigned grade level earlier in the school year? Well, the Lord knew my students and I were going to need the kind and loving Mrs. Torres on our team! On treatment mornings, Mrs. Torres brought both sections of the sixth grade class together for a time of worship and prayer. As I sat and received treatment, they were worshipping the Lord together, praising him for his faithfulness while being gently reminded of who he is when we face trials in this life and the hope that only he brings. In my time of trial, that was a meaningful and powerful testament to the compassionate heart of the Providence School faculty and student community.

Powerful prayer

Before I began treatment, my students and I had set two main prayer requests: that I could continue to work while undergoing treatment and that I wouldn’t be nauseated. Both prayer requests were answered with a resounding “yes.” At my second treatment, my doctor told me he was “blown away” by how well I was handling the chemo. He attributed it to how perfectly the dosage coincided with my body mass index, weight, and other medical rationales. I smiled and politely told him, “I believe you. But I also have an army of prayer warriors surrounding me and supporting me, and I believe there is miraculous power in that, too.” 

That wouldn’t be the last time my doctor marvelled at little miracles that allowed me to point him to the Lord. 

By Christmas 2019, I reached the halfway point in my treatment. The day of the Lower School Christmas program my sixth graders were at a tech rehearsal and I used my free time to sub in the third grade classroom. When I returned to my own classroom, I found a card on my desk, with the following note:

Dear Mrs. Wilson,

You’re doing it! I’m so happy to have you as my teacher for a second year in a row! You’re a great teacher and a great role model. It’s amazing how you’re teaching and going through chemo! If I were in your situation I would lose it. I’m really amazed at how you do it and still have the patience to teach 3rd graders. I know you can’t wait till all of this is over and so can’t I. If I believed in luck then I would wish you the best, however I know that the reason that you’re powering through chemo is most definitely not luck, but it’s prayer and your faith in God! I know it will be fine and normal in the end.

This thoughtful and compassionate student learned about the power of prayer in an experiential way that went far beyond any lesson I could have taught.

Note received from a sixth grade student

Helping hands

Outside the classroom, the Providence community supported me in a variety of ways. My students’ families and also families whose children I had never taught sent Amazon wish list items and meals to our home. A few families even made the trek from Santa Barbara to Camarillo to deliver meals. Colleagues paid for house cleanings prior to treatments and offered to cover my class during their prep time if I needed a break. Administrators supported me by finding consistent substitute teachers during my treatment weeks—a huge relief for my teacher’s heart—and bringing me necessary caffeine when the fatigue hit hard. Middle and Upper School teachers sent encouraging texts and emails. I felt seen, known, and loved by my school community in the most profound ways. I truly saw the love of Jesus as all members of the school community demonstrated a desire to alleviate my difficult time through their Christlike actions.     

With a student while sporting a wig at the Christmas program.

Love is a verb                

From the beginning of my cancer journey, I was very transparent with my class about my expected hair loss, a visually startling side effect of chemotherapy. I prepared students ahead of time as to when I would be cutting my hair short, then shaving it off, and even gave them permission to ask to see what my head looked like under the beanie I typically wore. (I wore a wig for the first time at the Christmas program and their reactions were priceless!). 

The week of my final treatment, four boys came to school with their heads shaved. They walked into my classroom and told me they wanted me to know they supported me and this was “how I would really know they meant it.” That Thursday, as I sat with my oncologist at my final treatment, I showed him a picture of me with these boys. At that moment, his very professional demeanor dropped away and his eyes filled with tears. He cleared his throat and asked, “Where do you teach, again?” When I answered “I teach at Providence School in Santa Barbara,” he smiled and replied, “It must be a very special place.” 

Shaved-head support crew!

Providence School is a very special place. Ask families, students, administrators, faculty, and staff what makes Providence special and you’ll hear a variety of answers: each one true and distinctive. Ask me what makes Providence special and my response will always be “it is a community of people who truly love the Lord and also love others well.” 

When a community is rooted in Christ, God’s faithfulness, love, mercy, and goodness are clearly demonstrated to others. It’s for his glory and purposes that we endure hardships or celebrate blessings alongside one another. 

May Providence School continue to shine brightly as a compassionate community and a beacon for Christ as we enter a new year and beyond! 

Mary Wilson
Mary Wilson

Lower School Assistant Principal

Mrs. Wilson loves finding ways to make learning engaging, fun, and enriching. Her many strengths include curriculum development and leadership. She was declared in “complete remission” in November 2021.

One Reply to “Compassionate Community: Shining a Light in the Darkness”

  1. What a God glorifying testimony, Mary. Thank you for sharing His praises!

    1Chronicles 16:28 Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
    29 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    bring an offering and come before him!
    Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;

    I am so blessed and encouraged by this, this morning!

    Rejoice! Tami

Leave a Reply to Tami Rutledge Cancel reply

%d bloggers like this: