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Cathy Free: Christmas Box House teacher provides a safe haven

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 21 2011 11:14 p.m. MST

In this 2007 photo, Sandy officer Todd Singleton delivers presents to children at the Christmas Box House in South Salt Lake City. Sharon Hall, a teacher at the Christmas Box House School, discussed her experiences over free lunch.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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SOUTH SALT LAKE – The question came during morning recess, a few hours after Sharon Hall had introduced herself to her new second-grade student.

"So, teacher," said the boy, who was covered in bruises from a flogging with a baseball bat by his father, "what time do we get beat here?"

Hall, who is accustomed to questions that would shock and anger most anyone, stooped down to give the child a hug and look him in the eye.

"We don't hit kids here," she told him in a soft, calming voice. "You're safe here. And I'm the luckiest teacher in the world because you came to my class."

It's a sentiment that is repeated almost daily at the Christmas Box House School, a one-room classroom offering a bright respite for children who were abused or neglected by their parents and placed in temporary protective custody at the shelter started by Richard Paul Evans, author of "The Christmas Box."

For 12 years, Hall, a teacher for the Granite School District, has been assigned to teach kindergarten through sixth grade in the unique classroom, never knowing from day-to-day who she will be teaching or when her students will be moving on.

Although she teaches between two and 12 children at a time, Hall has made room for as many as 20. Teenagers who aren't driven to their neighborhood schools are taught in a nearby building by another equally dedicated teacher, Marilyn Taylor.

"I might have kids here for one day, or I might have them for four months," says Hall, 50. "So all I can do is be an ambassador of hope. If I can show a child that somebody believes in them and wants them to succeed, perhaps that will stay with them. I want them to leave here knowing they are important and that they are loved."

Because children live at the Christmas Box House year-round, even during the holidays ("a sad reality," says Hall), she wanted to meet for a free lunch of takeout turkey sandwiches and tomato soup in her classroom during recess to share the importance of providing a safe haven for the smallest victims of abuse and violence.

"I'm adamant about telling my kids, 'It's not your fault that you're here,'" she says. "I tell them that even though they're not with their friends or family, the fact that they're here is proof they can do hard things in life."

While all school teachers face frustrations and challenges, they are small compared to what Hall faces every morning when she opens her door. Her students are frightened and confused, angry that they've been taken from all they have known, even if their days were filled with torment, torture or nothing to eat.

In the short time she has with the children until they are placed in foster homes or reunited with relatives, Hall tries to get them caught up on the basics. Not surprisingly, the majority of her students are two or more grades behind after years of parental neglect. Some can't complete simple tasks, such as spelling their names or recognizing numbers. Others have never thrown a ball or heard a bedtime story.

"I had one little girl, a first-grader, who had never been on a swing," says Hall. "So I took her outside to be pushed on the swing. Our motto is that every child deserves a childhood. A lot of my students have grown up having to be responsible for their siblings. They don't know how to be a kid."

Hall teaches them that and more, taking them to restaurants to learn about table manners, to the mountains to hike and make S'mores and to the Festival of Trees, where the children recently donated a tree to help the Primary Children's Medical Center.

"As much as they've been hurt in life, it's important for them to learn to give back," says Hall. "They've learned that giving helps them to feel better."

Every object in Hall's classroom is there for a reason, from the sign on the door announcing that "Everyone Who Enters This Room is Smart," to the "Mama's Fridge" displaying students' best work and a "worry wart" bag where they can toss their worries and fears after they've written them down and crumpled them.

You couldn't blame Hall if she filled the bag with her own worries now and then.

"I do wonder what happens to them when they leave, and that's the worst part," she says. "I don't get the beginning and I don't get the ending. I get the middle part, the hard part. But that's OK. If they leave here with any of the positive lessons that I've taught them, then it's all worthwhile."

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com.

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