Public Education Matters

Columbia Local Education Association member Susie Dunn believes in working for the common good and making the community better by working together. She was recently named an Unsung Hero of the Labor Movement for her work taking care of the people in her Columbia Local Schools community through the Columbia Giving Tree project.

Show Notes

The Columbia Giving Tree - Season 3, Episode 20
Columbia Local Education Association member Susie Dunn believes in working for the common good and making the community better by working together. She was recently named an Unsung Hero of the Labor Movement for her work taking care of the people in her Columbia Local Schools community through the Columbia Giving Tree project. 

DONATE | To support the work of the Columbia Giving Tree project, you can mail a check to:
Susie Dunn
Copopa Elementary School
13644 West River Road
Columbia Station, OH 44028
CONTACT | For more information, to volunteer as a donor family, or to learn about other ways you can help, email Susie Dunn at

SUBSCRIBE | Click here to subscribe to Education Matters on Apple Podcasts or click here to subscribe on Google podcasts so you don't miss a thing. And don't forget you can listen to all of the previous episodes anytime on your favorite podcast platform, or by clicking here.

Featured Education Matters guest: 
  • Susie Dunn, Columbia Local Education Association Member
    • Susie Dunn is the school counselor at Copopa Elementary School in the Columbia Local School District in Columbia Station, Ohio. It is a small, semi-rural township located in Lorain County near the Cuyahoga border (Strongsville). Dunn is the counselor in the elementary school, grades K-4, for about 375 students. She has been a counselor there since 2007, but served as a substitute teacher in Columbia Local Schools before taking that position. 
    • Dunn became involved in the Giving Tree Project in 2010, after her colleagues who started the program retired. She worked with another teacher until 2020 when the other teacher relocated to North Carolina. She then took over the entire project, not an easy feat! The Columbia Giving Tree serves about 25-30 families each year with donations of gifts and food to make sure that every family with needs can enjoy a lovely holiday with their children. They accept donations of gifts, cash, gift cards, and food from local grocery stores to provide a hearty meal as well as presents for children and families based on wish lists they receive from the families they contact. Their contact is made through referrals from teachers and staff at all three buildings in the district, Columbia Middle School, Columbia High School, and Copopa. 

Connect with OEA:
About us:
  • The Ohio Education Association represents about 120,000 teachers, faculty members and support professionals who work in Ohio’s schools, colleges, and universities to help improve public education and the lives of Ohio’s children. OEA members provide professional services to benefit students, schools, and the public in virtually every position needed to run Ohio’s schools.
  • Education Matters host Katie Olmsted serves as Media Relations Consultant for the Ohio Education Association. She joined OEA in May 2020, after a ten-year career as an Emmy Award winning television reporter, anchor, and producer. Katie comes from a family of educators and is passionate about telling educators' stories and advocating for Ohio's students. She lives in Central Ohio with her husband and two young children.
This episode was recorded on January 10, 2023.

What is Public Education Matters?

Ohio's public schools serve 1.6 million children - 90 percent of students in the state! What happens in the classroom has impacts far beyond the walls of the K-12 school building or higher ed lecture hall. So, on behalf of the 120,000 members of the Ohio Education Association, we're taking a deeper dive into some of the many education issues facing our students, educators, and communities. Originally launched in 2021 as Education Matters, Public Education Matters is your source for insightful conversations with the people who shape the education landscape in Ohio. Have a topic you'd like to hear about on Public Education Matters? Email us at

Intro 0:07
This is Education Matters, brought to you by the Ohio Education Association.

Katie Olmsted 0:15
Thanks for joining us for this edition of Education Matters. I'm your host Katie Olmsted and I'm part of the communications team that supports the Ohio Education Association's nearly 120,000 members and the students they serve. We all know those students' needs can go far beyond the curriculum. The reality is that some families in Ohio have a lot while others struggle to make ends meet. So things like new shoes and enough groceries to feed the family, let alone presents under the Christmas tree, are just not things they can afford. And the kids were going without the basics are dealing with more challenges that can make it harder to learn in school. So the members of the Columbia Education Association and their school community in Northeast Ohio do what they can to help through the Columbia Giving Tree program. The Columbia Giving Tree makes a huge difference to the families who receive what they need through the program, and to the families who have the opportunity to give back through it. And the educator who runs it, Susie Dunn, was just named an Unsung Hero of the Labor Movement for her work. Susie Dunn is a school counselor at Copopa Elementary School in Columbia Local Schools in Lorain County. And as she tells us, while the program is in the spotlight around the holidays, the need is real right now and all year round.

Susie Dunn, thank you so much for sitting down with us. I am so excited to hear more about your work with the Columbia Giving Tree. What exactly is that?

Susie Dunn 2:00
Well, it is a project, the Columbia Giving Tree is a project that was started many years ago, in about I think 1990 was when it began. That was before I started my career with Columbia Local Schools. It was started by a couple of teachers, it was a first grade teacher and a speech pathologist. And they just decided that families in Colombia, some of them were having some difficult times financially, and they wanted to make sure that every child in Colombia was able to enjoy a nice Christmas, a good a great holiday with gifts. And so they they started the program. And as a, as a mom with kids in the district at that time, I remember trying to help out and doing what I could. I then was hired by the district, which was wonderful, and those two ladies retired. And they passed the baton over to another first grade teacher who was Kim Schwartz and myself. And they said, keep this going because this is one of the this is this is a lovely thing to do. So Kim and I started and we did it together for 10 years. And then Kim moved to North Carolina. And I am kind of an disorganized gal and so I didn't get it together to get anyone to help me. And so I did it on my own. For two years, I kept that the whole Giving Tree project going. I asked for donations from local businesses. And this is a small town. So there really aren't a lot of small businesses. And I would kind of ask my co workers and colleagues like, can you throw in five bucks so we can so we could do this. And so, you know, they pulled through as they always do. And then I had people helping me wrap gifts and just do you know, pull things together for high school kids because high school kids there you know are a little bit more difficult to buy for. So we would try to get small things for them, you know, Bath and Bodyworks things and gift cards and just to make sure that that kids that all the kids who were having, having a tough time, had lots of presents and lots of things. So, we typically, there's probably 30 families per year that we pull together some gifts and you know with donations and - and sometimes people offered to buy gifts, so we'll ask for what wish lists, especially from the little ones who want littler things and toys. And so local families will purchase gifts for for the kids off of a wish list. So, you know, we try to make sure that moms and dads are covered too with gift cards and the local grocery stores will often give us grocery store gift cards and things of that nature so that everybody gets a little bit of something.

Katie Olmsted 5:31
So I have a couple of logistics questions on this one. One is how you identify the families that would receive these things.

Susie Dunn 5:40

Katie Olmsted 5:40
And I guess the bigger logistics question is, what does that look like now? How do you get this all together?

Susie Dunn 5:47
Yeah. Well, usually I ask, I send emails out to all the teachers, they're the ones on the front lines, and they're kind of the ones that notice when kids have shoes, that you know, they need new shoes, or their shoes are too small or - so I ask for referrals. And then I sometimes look at kids that are having a difficult time with buying lunches. I, I get a list of families that that we have a school social worker, she also gives me a little bit of a hand with that, families who have reached out to her for utility help and stuff. So I compile a list of families, sometimes it's as many as 50 families, I reach out to those families and say, you know, this is - I identify who I am so that they know I'm the school counselor, everything is confidential - And I say that your name has been referred. I want you to know that there is help. And if you would like to be a part of our Giving Tree this year, and then I give families the option. Some are far too proud and will say 'no, thank you very much. But we're doing just fine.' And I say 'Oh, that's great,' and 'You call me if you ever need anything.' And so that's how I start. Usually I end up with about 30 families that say yes, that would be lovely. And, and then we go from there. Logistics is becoming more and more difficult to find storage space. So I have a little closet that - well my office is very small. So I do use my office. But it's really it's tough because I still have kids coming in and they say, 'What is going on with these presents?!' And I say 'I'm Santa's helper this year,' so. So I use my office, I pile things up, I have a closet across the hall that I also use. I enlist the help of teachers who have larger classrooms and they say, 'You can use a corner of my classroom, it's fine, we can keep it you know, behind my desk so kids don't see.' And so that's really what we do.

I want to circle back to something you mentioned about the grocery gift cards and the shoes and these just very basic necessities that I think when a lot of people think about the Christmas wish lists for families, they're not thinking about that as what makes a nice Christmas. But you must see on a daily basis, how it affects a kid who doesn't have those things and affects their ability to focus and learn in school.

Yes, yes it does. It does. You know kids that go outside we go outside for recess in all kinds of weather not in the pouring rain but when it's cold, as long as it's 20 degrees or above they go outside. And sometimes there's snow on the ground and I There are kids that have holes in their shoes and their feet get very wet and then they're super uncomfortable and they come to me and I say, 'Sweetheart, I didn't know that you had you needed some shoes' and so you know and their socks are wet their shoes are wet. Now I do make sure that we have like a little clothes cupboard where if kids need socks or if they need and I just say just take them and I don't always have a variety of shoes. I do have a few pair but I can't keep a lot here and there's you know all different sizes so that's difficult. But yeah, it is hard for kids and when they have clothes that are too small or you know they can't button their pants, because they're, it's too tight and it causes them embarrassment. And that's, you know, it breaks, it breaks your heart. So, yeah, we want to make sure, you know, that they get outfits, that they get shoes, that they get socks, anything they need. And then you know a toy too. Like that, that's okay. And those wish lists - That's why I mean, I ask for sizes, and I ask for favorite colors, and I ask for = And I always tell the parents, please be reasonable in your requests. If a kid asks for an iPad, chances are, they're not going to get that but but we can make sure that they can get a set of Legos if they like or, you know, new shoes and a couple of outfits and, and that, that just, you know - You see kids with their shoes on when they come in like, and that I know came from Giving Tree and that and they're delighted and so am I. So, and it all remains anonymous families who buy for other families, I do it by a number and a letter so that they don't know who it is they're buying for. So if they're, you know, are other kids in the family or whatever, like no one, no one knows that that was who bought for that particular family. So

Katie Olmsted 11:30
And I think it's so important to to enlist those other families to help you. I know educators who work with people, who work with kids who are going without, they'll they'll dig so deep, they'll dig into their own pockets and, and give whatever they can to make sure that kids have clothes that fit or shoes that fit or whatever they need. But you can't do it for everybody. There - I mean, let's face it, educators don't make enough money for that to be something that's feasible. So to have the community come together to meet that need. Obviously, in the ideal world, we wouldn't have this need in the first place, but

Susie Dunn 12:11

Katie Olmsted 12:12
it has to be so - it has to warm your heart to see how the community comes together to do this.

Susie Dunn 12:18
It does. It does. I, you know, I have people come to me and say, Please let me help. Or, you know, you gave me you gave me another you gave me a family, I'd like another family. Do you have another family I could help? Like I think it gets, you know, sort of like, contagious or something. They, they they know that - it makes you really feel wonderful to be able to help a family. And I have had families reach out to me afterwards, after being on the receiving end and saying, I didn't know how I was going to provide a Christmas for my kids this year. I you know, one lady, single mom had lost her job. And she said, 'You reached out to me the week after I lost my job. I had no idea how I was going to handle this.' And then she, you know, wrote me this long email afterwards and said, 'You guys are so generous. My kids had a great Christmas. And you you know, just the kindness I will never forget.' And she said, 'For the rest of my life, I'm going to pay this forward.' And you know that that's, that's really something that's great that people are just so appreciative. And it's it's just it's lovely, and I don't want to stop doing it. Eventually I'm going to have to when I retire, but I do have another teacher that is willing to work with me. She helped me out this year and so we'll do it as a partnership. And hopefully then she can take that over when I go so

Katie Olmsted 14:15
Well and it's very clear how important this project is to you and how rewarding you find it to be. Suzie Neff, the NEOEA Recording Secretary nominated you for an award for your work. She wrote, quote, "The Columbia Giving Tree has become a project that drives her." That award is called the United Labor Agency's Unsung Heroes of the Labor Movement award. There were two NEOEA winners of that award this year. There have been 17 union activists from nine NEOEA locals who have received that award over the years. Talk to me a little bit about that. What was that like for you when you found out that you were a Unsung Hero of the Labor Movement for this work?

Susie Dunn 15:09
Incredible. I was overwhelmed. They told me on a phone call. I was on a conference call from with Suzy Neff. And Jason Geanuracos who is our union president here at the at the Columbia Local Education Association. So they told me, and I was like, 'What? What?!' It was hard to believe. And I was just overwhelmed with emotion. And I'm very, very grateful. I thought, you know, of all the people that do such remarkable work in the labor movement, especially in the Cleveland area - I mean, this is, you know, big union city. And I mean, people organize and do so many wonderful things. And I, to be included, just in that group was a total honor and an overwhelming honor. We were invited to a lovely dinner. And it was held at the, at the Cleveland Browns stadium, in the upstairs area where there's, you know, like a banquet hall kind of thing. And just listening to people's speeches that night like, of the things that they had done and organized people and just to be in, like I said, to be included in that group was just an overwhelming honor and, and really, really touching. And, you know, my dad was a big union man, he was a union representative for local, the local UAW. He worked for Ford for many, many years. And then he became a union rep. And just he he loved helping guys and, and girls in, you know, in the UAW, and he was really proud of that work. And we were proud of them too. And I thought - he's, he's been gone a long time - but I thought, being up there, and giving a speech that I had to, it was, he would have been very, very proud to know that his daughter received an award from the labor unions like from labor movement. So that was, that was another thing that was both my mom and dad would have been proud of that. So that was great.

And to me, this whole sort of thing you're doing is what the labor movement is all about. It's about making our communities better places, working toward the common good, and how we are all stronger when we all work together to do it. So.

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I agree with that. 100%.

Katie Olmsted 18:07
So let's be stronger, let's be stronger in 2023 than we were in 2022. If people want to help you with the Columbia Giving Tree Project, what should they do?

Susie Dunn 18:17
Well, they're welcome to donate. If they want to be a donor family, they could do that. They can send me an email or if they would like to just donate a, you know, a donation, they can send it to The Giving Tree, a check to The Giving Tree, they can mail it to my, my elementary school, in care of me, in care of Susie Dunn, at 13644 West River Road, Columbia Station, Ohio, 44028. They welcome you know, any amount. $5, you know, that if we pull it together it and it would be it's lovely. If they would like to be a donor family, they can just send me a note and send it to that same address and, or they could send me an email. It's You can send me an email and let me know that you'd like to be a donor family and we can work something out for that. So

Katie Olmsted 19:33
And it's not just for the Christmas time. You have a need for these donations all year round.

Susie Dunn 19:39
Absolutely. We do. Absolutely. You know, we want to make sure that families have a lovely holiday season, but there are times, as we all know, that things can happen throughout the year that, people still lose their jobs, people still fall on hard times, and we help all year long. If a kid needs a pair of shoes, if a teenager, you know, needs some shoes and, you know, appearance is very important when when you're in high school and, and you want to fit in so we make sure that those things that we use that that those donations for that too, all year long.

Katie Olmsted 20:25
Well Susie, thank you so much for all you do for those students and their families. And thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us today.

Susie Dunn 20:32
Oh, you're so welcome. Thank you so much for having me.

Katie Olmsted 20:39
If you'd like to donate to the Columbia Giving Tree you can find the full details about how to do it in the show notes for this episode. And while you're there, make sure you subscribe to Education Matters wherever you get your podcasts so you don't miss the thing. New episodes drop every Thursday morning. As always, if you have thoughts on what you'd like to hear on a future episode, please send me an email at Or you can connect with OEA anytime on social media. We are @OhioEA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Until next time, stay well

Transcribed by