Published August 20, 2020
Kaitlyn Kanzler, NorthJersey.com
Catherine Browne '21 was with her mother watching "Ellen" on TV when she saw a high school principal from Newark on the show.
Akbar Cook, principal at West Side High School, was featured on the show in 2018 for installing washers and dryers at the school to enable his students to have clean clothes and the Lights On afterschool program.
Browne, a Millburn resident and senior at Mount St. Dominic Academy in Caldwell, found Cook's efforts at the high school inspiring and decided she wanted to do something to help the students at the school. She started a GoFundMe in November 2018 and raised $2,500 to purchase new Chromebooks for the school.
The donation is just one way Browne said she can spread kindness. She started an Instagram with the handle @allways.kindness, where she posts encouraging messages for people. She also interns with Good Vibes & Easy Living Foundation, an Essex-based nonprofit, and hopes to raise more money for West Side High School.
"I wanted to help in any way I could," Browne said.
Cook said Browne filled a void and removed a technological barrier for his students with the Chromebook donations.
"I'm so appreciative and the kids are as well," he said. "It definitely decreased the digital divide my kids were facing."
Cook said he hopes to continue to encourage his students to spread kindness the way Bowne did and to help support her efforts anyway he can.
Browne said it took her longer to get the Chromebooks than she originally anticipated because she was hoping to get the best deal possible. She said she reached out to a number of companies, and none got back to her.
She went to Best Buy and was able to purchase 19 Chromebooks.
"That was actually a lot more than we anticipated so we're very grateful for that," Browne said.
But despite the delay in purchasing the Chromebooks, Browne said her delivery of them in May couldn't have come at a better time when students are forced to work from home with the coronavirus pandemic.
"For me, all my work is online and I don't know how I would do half of my work without having access to the internet and Google Drive and Google Documents," Browne said. "I wanted [the students] to have at least an opportunity to have that accessibility."
Cook was self-quarantining the day Browne dropped off the laptops and masks but she was able to speak with him via Instagram while during the delivery.
West Side High School has around 650 students and the school only has 426 laptops to distribute. Cook said several of the laptops that were returned at the end of the school year were not in good shape so there was definitely a need.
"One act of kindness goes a long way," Cook said. "She did something that is going to have a tremendous outcome on kids who are more disadvantaged."
With the leftover money, Browne went to numerous pharmacies to purchase 700 masks for the school to use for the Lights On program. Lights On was started by Cook in 2016 and keeps the school open from 6 to 11 p.m. on Fridays for students. In his interview with Ellen DeGeneres, Cook said crime in Newark was more prevalent between those hours.
Browne said Cook and the other staff members at West Side High School were "so grateful" for the donations.
"He was so overwhelmed and so genuinely grateful to accept the donation for his students," Browne said. "Principal Cook said that 'it was going to change so many of his students' lives.'"
Cook said the masks were used immediately in order to keep providing a safe space and food for those that participate in the Lights On program.
"She was an oasis in a land of despair," Cook said. "She flung water to keep these kids hydrated."
- In the News