Why did Justin Bieber end up performing in the multipurpose room of a Las Vegas elementary school? Because somebody reached out, again and again, on behalf of underprivileged kids. The pop idol not only sang at Whitney Elementary School in December—causing little girls to swoon and cry—he also donated $100,000. That came on top of an earlier $100,000 donation from Ellen DeGeneres and Target. And that was after several media outlets—from CNN to CBS News—took note of one person’s passion and gumption.
Principal Sherrie Gahn’s 2011 was a story of karma, of hard work paying off and, most importantly, a tale of enormous empathy. For nearly a decade, this petite, bespectacled woman has made it her business to go beyond just showing up for work as head of Whitney Elementary, where 85 percent of 610 students rely on the reduced-fee or free-lunch program and many are homeless. She made it her purpose to help them—not just with academics, but with clothing, beds, haircuts and doctor’s appointments. One thing led to another: The task of keeping kids in school means stabilizing their home life, and so Gahn started helping parents pay the rent, electric bills, find jobs, learn to read, get their GEDs and attend parenting classes. Last year, the world took note. Donations flowed. Kids got more help. Families got hope.
Gahn feels for these kids in part because she relates. She was raised by a single mom in Buffalo, N.Y., but always believed she would go to college, even though it seemed like the odds were against her. Her mother instilled an abiding hope in her. Even when she faced learning challenges in math and reading, she kept believing. Eventually, she made it to a small college in Buffalo, and then to Arizona State University, where she earned dual bachelor’s degrees in special education and general education. She built a career working with high-need students in Arizona before moving to Las Vegas in 1992, getting a master’s in educational leadership and landing her first principal position at Whitney in 2004.
“I knew I was home and had found my purpose in life,” she says.
In September, she started an organization called Village of Hope, which is based at Whitney but focuses on the broader needs of the families, who must agree to commit to their children’s education—attend meetings, volunteer, make steps to improve home life—before receiving help. This year she’s hoping that it will ultimately be a model program that other schools can emulate.
After a year of national recognition, Gahn remains humble, busy, devoted to “the babies” and proud of the hardworking Whitney staff that has embraced the vision with her.
“People say, ‘How can you do all that? And I say, ‘How could I not?’ I was in their shoes once,” she says, “and I believe that everybody deserves a chance.”