Samantha Lurie

2012 Unsung Hero Samantha Lurie. Photo: Mike Sherwin

BY PATRICIA CORRIGAN, Special to the Light

Samantha Lurie says she is humbled to be honored as an Unsung Hero, but insists that she has been able to make a difference for area high school students only because so many people have helped her help them.

“I want to talk about my heroes, the people who are the reasons I have stayed in St. Louis,” Lurie said. “Many of them are from the Jewish community, and I need to speak about them.”

Lurie rattled off this list: “Karen Kalish, who founded Cultural Leadership, Maxine Clark and Bob Fox at Build-A-Bear, Ron Gubitz and other staff members at Teach for America, including Lynn Schusterman, who provided me with a life coach in the St. Louis community—Miriam Singer,” Lurie said.

“All these people have taken me under their wings, taught me so many things, truly believed in me,” she continued. “They all have been vital in investing in me and supporting me in my efforts to help repair the world.”

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In turn, the energetic Lurie works before school, after school and most weekends, trying to make life better for young people. Since August 2008, Lurie has taught students with special needs at Vashon and Roosevelt High Schools. She has served as a mentor for more than 150 students, working to improve their academic performance, and she coaches girls’ basketball.

Lurie also sponsors students who take part in Cultural Leadership, a program that works to rekindle the historical alliance between Jews and African-Americans. After taking part in a fellowship through Teach for America that sent her to Israel, Lurie decided to raise $50,000 so she can take 25 students to Costa Rica in March 2013. And with a friend who works for the Miami Dolphins, Lurie helps run a football camp in her hometown of Lansing, Mich., that combines football with academic training and professional skills development.

Asked about her many roles as a mentor, Lurie replied, “I truly believe it takes a village, a community, to raise a child. I was raised in an urban community, a community consisting of family, friends, teachers and synagogue members. Now it is my responsibility to give back.”

Lurie earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. Then she joined Teach for America, which assigned her to Vashon High School. While working, she earned a master’s of education at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

Lurie said she realized the importance of education early on. “In high school, I had a wide range of friends, some who went on to great colleges, but also some who did not take education seriously and dropped out,” Lurie said. “I knew then that by becoming a teacher, I would have an opportunity to help students, to inspire them to get a great education and to be an advocate for them.”

That advocacy has taken many forms. Colin Isreal, Lurie’s department supervisor at Vashon, described Lurie as “very dedicated and actively involved,” and said that Lurie “goes above and beyond to help students.” For example, Lurie thought that her alma mater would be a good fit for one of her basketball players. “I took her to visit Earlham during her senior year, and helped her apply,” Lurie said. “She is there now, and doing great.”

Though Lurie is now officially an alum of Teach for America, she has stayed involved, serving on committees and helping to lead programs. Talking about the  Teach for America fellowship that sent her to Israel in 2009, Lurie said, “That 10-day trip helped me re-engage in Judaism and helped me realize the work I was doing was directly aligned to my Jewish upbringing.”

Last summer, Lurie accompanied 25 students taking part in Cultural Leadership on a three-week trip to nine states. The focus of the trip—which includes visits to Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia and other cities—was visiting historical Jewish and African-American sites and meeting community leaders.

“For so many of the students, it was the first time out of the state and the first time on a plane. They were exposed to so much, and I saw them grow so much,” Lurie said. Kalish, the founder of Cultural Leadership and now founder of Home Works, a teacher home-visit program, credits Lurie with making the trip extra special.

“It’s hard, traveling with teenagers, and yet Samantha took it all in like a sponge and gave an enormous amount. She was always there for them, lending an ear or a shoulder when needed, asking questions to help them dig deeper, think deeper,” Kalish said. “Samantha is passionate, creative, bright—I can’t say enough wonderful things about her.”

That trip inspired Samantha to work with her co-teacher to set up a trip to Costa Rica for her own students. Fund-raising efforts for the trip, scheduled for next March, began early in May. The goal is to raise about $1,800 per student. Lurie wants the students to earn the money. “I’m trying to teach the value of work here,” she said. “I want the kids to be involved, and to be exhausted from raising funds.”

After she makes that trip with her students—no one doubts that she will—what’s next for Lurie?

“I definitely will be here next year. I am very happy with the way I am able to affect kids in the position I am in,” Lurie said. “After that, I don’t know. My involvement in Teach for America and other programs will point me in the next direction, but I do know I will always be grateful for the time that people in St. Louis have invested in me.”

Samantha Lurie

AGE: 26

FAMILY:  Single

HOME: St. Louis

OCCUPATION:  Teaches 10th-grade biology classes at Vashon High School

FAVORITE PASTIME: Working out, running marathons, playing basketball, traveling, eating out