Katonah-Lewisboro school board members stood in applause at their Jan. 24 meeting following a presentation by the John Jay Middle School (JJMS) students and faculty who spearheaded the 26 Day Challenge in honor and memory of the 20 children and six teachers murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.
“It is a great example of when you empower students they can have an impact and how they can help others,” said Richard Leprine, JJMS principal.
A little more than a week after the tragedy, a handful of seventh grade teachers set about the challenge of how to talk about the shootings with their students in an appropriate way that empowered them, JJMS teacher Laura Atwell said. She organized the event along with fellow faculty members Amy Baisley, Gail Bergman, Nick Stathis, and Jim Egler.
Together they devised the 26 Day Challenge, and from their own pockets provided a single dollar to each student with one rule only — the dollar had to be used to help someone else. When teachers and students met 26 days later, teachers were floored by the stories that came back, Ms. Atwell said.
Stretching a dollar
“Our biggest fear was the dollar bills would go through the laundry like with my kids,” Ms. Atwell said, “but really, it was astounding what they did.”
Teachers were thrilled to discover that over the winter break their students had transformed $100 into $2,700, donating the money to 23 charitable organizations in addition to donations to individuals and families, as close as Katonah and as far away as Belize, that were in need.
“I have been sitting up here almost for six years now and I have yet to be pulled to tears by a student presentation, but you guys made it very close,” said Mark Lipton, board president.
In addition to the Sandy Hook Elementary School Victims Relief Fund, student projects ranged from starting a memorial vegetable garden and donations to the Community Center of Katonah to the Wounded Warrior Project and the Newtown, Conn., animal shelter. Several students gave donations to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, including Ryan Kingston, a Cross River resident. As an additional remembrance of his best friend who died in the fourth grade from leukemia, he turned his dollar into a $114 donation to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. With family members matching his dollar, he used his mother’s Facebook page to bring in additional donations from around the country and world, including Malaysia, Florida and South Carolina. He even received a dollar from his mother’s friend who lost her home on Long Island during Hurricane Sandy.
“I learned that little things can have a lot of meaning,” he said.
Ms. Atwell commended the students on their ingenuity and dedication, with some students growing their money by doing house chores and shoveling snow. One student even made and sold plaques, she said.
“They went above and beyond,” Ms. Atwell said. “It wasn’t about them; it was about what they could do for other people.”
The students’ deeds were contagious, she said, with far-reaching effects, like tiny pebbles making big ripples. News of the students’ acts of kindness not only spread but inspired others to donate with whatever generosity they could muster. One business owner in Katonah contacted Ms. Atwell after working on a project with the students and wanted to know how she could continue to help. Another student gave money to a family in need while on vacation in Belize, and a father of one student took up the habit of giving his spare change to a homeless woman outside his office after witnessing his son do it for the project.
“These guys did an amazing job with this,” Ms. Atwell said. “We are so proud. All of the teachers on the team are parents, and we couldn’t be more proud if these were our own kids.”
Honoring Sandy Hook
Mills Reed, a seventh grade student from Katonah, said he used the project to honor the memory of Anne Marie Murphy and the students and teachers killed in the tragedy. Ms. Murphy was a Katonah native and special education teacher at Sandy Hook who died while shielding her students during the shooting.
“She lived our school motto — learn, care, lead,” he said.
Thanks to matching donations from family and friends, Mills purchased and donated three copies of the book The Three Questions by Jon Muth. The books were donated to children’s libraries in Katonah, Somers and Mt. Kisco.
“I did this because this is where she was born, raised and buried,” he said. “I donated these books in their memory so when anyone reads the books their memory will live on in one of those people’s hearts.”
The actions taken by the students is indicative of the contributions they can make to society, Mr. Leprine said. He was amazed at how their efforts mushroomed into generous gifts of time, energy and money, and he was fascinated with the amount of potential they displayed, he said.
“It will have an impact on them the rest of their lives,” he said.
The sadness of the Sandy Hook shooting was felt across the country and beyond, with young students being no exception. Mr. Leprine remembers the fear the students felt following the tragedy.
“Kids were clearly shaken after the incident, as were all of us, frankly,” he said. “It was such a heart-wrenching tragedy.”
One student spent his dollar by buying a bag of 30 sweet pea seeds while at a botanical nursery with his mother. Included in his essay describing the project was a vivid reminder of the lives lost and the memories that remain.
“I will plant 26 of the 30 sweet pea seeds in my mom’s garden in the spring,” the student wrote. “I chose to plant seeds because it would honor the 26 lives lost by adding 26 new, sweet, sprouting lives to the world. I know it’s just a small gesture, but I will think of them every time I go out to harvest the pods.”