Jacksonville teacher turns spare dough from pizzeria into lifeline for students

'We’re going to change these kids’ lives, one life at a time,' Jodi Sands says

Jodi Sands turned her second job as a waitress into a way to help students in need (Note: This photo was taken prior to the pandemic). (Courtesy of Chad Cushnir/Facebook)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Atlantic Coast High School teacher Jodi Sands couldn’t sit by while students suffered from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

So, she decided to do something about it.

Sands, who works a second job waiting tables at Vino’s Pizza in Fruit Cove, vowed to donate half the tips she collects to help students whose families are struggling to make ends meet.

“There’s a story about Christmas in July, so I said it’s Christmas in June,” Sands said.

Her inspiration comes from a place of pain: about five years ago, a young person she knew took his own life. The note he left behind, she recalled, said he had lost hope.

“Without hope, you give up,” Sands said. “We can’t have people giving up right now.”

At first, her idea was simple. Having seen the toll the pandemic took on students whose parents and grandparents got sick or lost their jobs, she gave a student a care package.

It didn’t feel like enough. “I thought, ‘What can I do?’” she said.

The answer dawned on her while driving to work one day: she routinely took home $100 in tips from her Saturday shifts. Why couldn’t she donate some of her earnings to students?

She set out June 6 to raise $50. She exceeded that goal and got a parent to match her earnings. Then a Duval County Public Schools social worker chipped in another $50, allowing them to donate $170 to a student in need.

The first recipient was a student who lost her job amid the shutdown and whose bicycle, and only way of getting around, was stolen. Thanks to the generosity of Sands and others, she received a new bike, bike lock and $170.

Based on her initial success, Sands decided to fundraise for students every Saturday in June. The social worker selected the students, she said, and the donations were kept anonymous.

“It just said, ‘With love and compassion, your Atlantic Coast family,’” she said. “And we left it at that because none of us wanted recognition. We just wanted to help these kids.”

By the end of the month, Sands wanted to help even more. So, she pledged all of her tips that Saturday, collected some donations from her bosses and family, and set up a GoFundMe account to raise $500.

But what began as an individual act of kindness took on a life of its own as word spread on social media. Soon, students and other teachers rallied behind her efforts.

Fellow teacher Chad Cushnir had seen Sands’ social media posts and wanted to help. Unable to make it to the restaurant, he donated to the GoFundMe and shared Sands’ posts online.

“A lot of students follow me on Instagram, so it’s good for them to know that there’s a few good people at our school,” Cushnir said. “I think the main reasons why she works her second job is because she enjoys it and is not the type of person who sits around and does nothing.”

He wasn’t the only person inspired by Sands’ generosity. She said several students also made donations, including one who donated $90 he had earned bussing tables.

“When people say things about this generation, don’t believe them,” Sands said. “Because they are the best, most compassionate people you will ever meet.”

To date, Sands’ GoFundMe has raised more than $750.

The 20-year teaching veteran who holds a master’s degree took the second job not out of necessity but rather because she fell in love with the restaurant and the food she serves.

She had no idea when she was hired that waiting tables would give her a platform to touch so many lives.

“We’re going to change these kids’ lives, one life at a time.”

To learn more or make a donation, visit Sands’ GoFundMe page.