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story.lead_photo.caption Juanita Harris

TEXARKANA, Arkansas — Those who work with children are molding the next generation with their bare hands, but don't always have someone to hold theirs when times are difficult.

Teachers Support Teachers, a local organization for those who spend 85% of their instructional day with students, is working to change that.

Founded by Juanita Harris, a kindergarten teacher at College Hill Elementary who was also was the Texarkana, Arkansas, School District's Teacher of the Year in 2018, the group is working to provide one opportunity a month for self-care for teachers. Examples include their fundraising gala on March 7, 2020, where educators can relax, dine and listen to music, a wreath-making class and a Teacher School Supply Buffet.

"We want to encourage teachers and boost their morale," Harris said. "We want to take the time for our educators to show them we care."

There is no cost to join the group, which has a Facebook page to connect teachers all across the state and the nation.

"They don't have to pay to join because we know teachers don't make enough money because, well, they are teachers," she said.

She formed the group earlier this year after experiencing an unfortunate professional bullying incident. During that time, Harris, who also received the Bessie B. Moore Award in 2017 for her Everyday Economics: Earn Money, Spend Money, Learn Economics project, almost left her beloved profession, but found her own personal strength and realized she wasn't the only one going through a similar situation.

"I always strive to do my best, to be exceptional and give my kids everything," she said. "In going through that, I realized teachers need a support group because my story isn't the only one like that. God started dropping different educators across the state on my heart who had dealt with similar things. It was just coming from a place of understanding that every teacher doesn't work at a perfect school. It's also about providing information, because a lot of times, if you are not in education and you are not directly tied to education, you don't understand the things we are dealing with on a daily basis. The pressures from your campus, your district, the state and even nationally can be too much. There's a lot of pressure also in having to do all things for all people. Teachers sometimes don't realize they are neglecting their own families for the good of their students. I want to make sure they take care of themselves, too."

Last week, while Harris was attending the Arkansas Education Association conference, she was wearing her TST T-shirt and working to spread the word about the group, which is a benefit corporation, a for-profit entity that functions like a nonprofit.

"Our mission is 'Encouraging the Hearts that Shape the Minds,'" Harris said. "I'm telling as many teachers as I can about TST. The journey starts at home in Texarkana, but I'm reaching out across the state, connecting as far as Florida and eventually across the nation. I think that when people see TST in the community and across the state and experience things like the gala, I think they are going to want to be a part of this."

TST will also be discussed during Monday's meeting of the Texarkana, Arkansas, City Council, Harris said.

They are also seeking partners for the Fundraising Gala, which will be held March 7 at the Texarkana, Arkansas, Convention Center. The budget is $10,000 and individual tickets are $25 right now, but if they receive enough funding, that price will be reduced, Harris said. TST is also accepting donations for the Teacher School Supply Buffet in August, where teachers can pick out school supplies like pens, pencil sharpeners and cardstock they normally pay for out of their own pockets.

"We want to give teachers supplies that in many districts are not provided," Harris said. "I will be happy to receive the donations and come pick them up."

Those who wish to join may contact TST at 501-295-7133 or by email at [email protected] Donations may also be made directly to their account at Farmers Bank.

Harris said all donations are welcome and appreciated.

"Our heart is big, but we need the budget to match what we need to do for our educators," she said.

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