Claire Sarnowski receives Heart of Gold Award
Lakeridge sophomore Claire Sarnowski was recently honored with an award that suits her well. The "Heart of Gold" Award was given to Sarnowski by the Wholistic Peace Institute for helping create a culture of peace through student leadership, creativity and compassion.
Co-founded in 2001 by Gary Spanovich and the late Sen. Mark Hatfield, the Wholistic Peace Institute is a research, teaching and peace-making nonprofit corporation also known as Educating for Peace in Oregon.
"We're trying to change the culture to be more peaceful," Spanovich said. "Claire symbolizes that work. This is just the beginning of her journey, and she's already had a huge impact in Oregon."
Sarnowski was the driving force behind mandating Holocaust and genocide education in Oregon, in the form of Senate Bill 664, which will require school districts across Oregon to provide instruction about the Holocaust and genocide in social studies classes. Sarnowski was inspired to fight for mandated Holocaust education by her dear friend, Alter Wiener, a Holocaust survivor who passed away in December 2018. Sarnowski first heard Wiener's story in fourth grade, and it changed her life. "It was so moving and interesting to me to hear his personal account," she said. "I knew about what happened in the Holocaust, but I didn't truly understand until I got to hear a survivor speak."
Wiener's father was murdered by German invaders when he was only 13 years old. Wiener himself was taken to a forced labor camp at 15, he said. He eventually spent time in five different concentration camps; when his last camp was liberated in 1945, he was 18 years old and weighed just 80 pounds. He was one of only two surviving members of his entire extended family.
Sarnowski was presented the award Wednesday, Oct. 23 during a ceremony at Nicoletta's Table. She gave a talk about the journey to passing SB 664, and what she has been up to since — including joining STAND, a student-led movement against mass atrocities, lobbying in Washington D.C., and being invited to give talks and receive awards nationwide, including from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
"It all started when I met Alter," said Sarnowski. Despite the decades that separated them, she felt a connection to him, and the two began a deep and meaningful friendship that would eventually change Oregon's curriculum.
"I was disappointed in the education I was receiving about the Holocaust. It was disheartening," Sarnowski said. "I began asking Alter what his goals and dreams are for his life. Holocaust education in Oregon was one of his goals that he mentioned every time we had that conversation."
Sarnowski never saw herself getting involved in politics — let alone lobbying in Washington D.C. at 15 and being one of the youngest people honored by the ADL — but "I knew that Alter was there to keep me going," she said.
The road to passing SB 664 wasn't an easy one, but Sarnowski didn't let herself get discouraged. "There's no way to identify what hurdles may come up. Keep in mind what your end goal is and never let anyone stray you away from that," she said. "I always remembered not to let anyone limit me. You have to lead the way — that's how we get work done."
Though Sarnowski's impact has been large, she encouraged those at Nicoletta's Table to think about small ways they can positively impact other people, including holding the door open for someone or inviting a new student to sit with you at lunch. "That can not only impact someone's day, but it can impact their whole spirit," she said. "We can all be more compassionate and kind in our daily life."
Sarnowski isn't in this work for herself, however. "There's so many other people that I'm doing this for. I'm doing this for Alter, for all Holocaust survivors, and for future generations of Oregon students."
For more information on the Wholistic Peace Institute, visit www.wholisticpeaceinstitute.com/.
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