Normally, the break room at the Puyallup School District’s administration office is reserved for professional staff members to get a quick bite to eat.
But last Wednesday afternoon, it quickly transformed into a staging ground for the March Gladness Leadership Team to assemble 50 sack lunches for the homeless men and women served by the Freezing Nights program.
Hailey Swindall, a sophomore at Rogers High School who is a member of the leadership team, was at the head of the table with two classmates, dishing out peanut butter and spreading it across a slice of white bread.
“I’ve done a lot of things with March Gladness,” Swindall said. “I have a lot of new opportunities because of my involvement with March Gladness.”
The event, a district-wide program that provides service opportunities to kindergarten through 12th-grade students in Puyallup, started in March 2006. From the start, it has been completely student-driven, with logistical support from Communities in Schools of Puyallup.
“Students are very involved in their own schools, as well as the projects we do as a leadership team together,” said Jan Mauk, executive director of Communities in Schools of Puyallup.
Mauk said a survey on student engagement in 2004, performed as a joint effort by Communities in Schools and the school district, showed that students didn’t feel valued and felt disconnected from the community.
“In 2005, the (Indonesia) tsunami hit, and Communities in Schools responded,” Mauk said. “We coordinated an emergency kit drive and assembled 10,000 tsunami-relief kits. In late 2005, students district-wide raised money to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.”
Mauk said a culture of student activism sprung from those two experiences.
“Kids wanted to continue helping the community,” she said. “District staff, teachers and students came up with the whole concept of March Gladness.”
In the early years of the program, March Gladness organized student-led projects during the month. But Mauk said it soon became apparent that containing projects to a single month was difficult.
“Students wanted to do more projects,” she said. “So, now we’re doing projects from January through March, and this is the third year doing that.”
A couple thousand students participated in 2006, Mauk said. The next year, better records of student participation were kept.
“From 2007 to 2012, we have had over 58,000 students participate, and they have raised $231,218 for global and local causes,” Mauk said.
The program’s theme this year is “32 Schools Making 1 Big Difference.”
And for the first time, Mauk said every school is doing at least one project that either benefits a local or global cause.
For Swindall, the opportunity to help the community means a lot. She started her involvement with March Gladness when she joined the leadership team as a ninth-grader, and she organized a fundraiser to benefit the American Heart Association at Ballou Junior High. That year, Swindall’s efforts raised $1,500 for the association in honor of those who had died from heart disease.
Swindall, who lost her father to heart disease during her eighth-grade year, said her involvement and contributions meant a lot.
“It was a really good experience,” she said.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Luon, a ninth-grader at Aylen Junior High who is a member of the leadership team, helped to organize a project in the school library for students interested in writing letters to thank active military soldiers who serve in the United States and overseas.
Luon said 30 to 50 students were involved last Wednesday at the school and wrote about 70 letters and cards to soldiers.
“I like helping people, and being involved in March Gladness helps me get involved in the community,” she said.
Eighth-grade students Katie Batchelder, Alexandra Fernando, Sierra Barrow and Madison Salisbury crafted cards with an assortment of colorful construction paper.
“I hope with these letters that they really understand we appreciate them risking their lives and making the ultimate sacrifice,” Fernando said.
Reporter Andrew Fickes can be reached at 253-552-7001 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @herald_andrew.