In 1957 while addressing an audience in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'" In 2010, under the guidance of Rectory's then-new Head of School Fred Williams, Rectory School started answering that question. Rather than a day off, Mr. Williams, with the help of parents, faculty, and staff, arranged a day devoted to helping others; thus began Rectory's annual MLK, Jr. Day of Service. That first year included a morning assembly where faculty members and guest speakers George and Sandy Groom spoke about their community service experiences while Mary Lou Seaward shared a presentation celebrating great leaders for social justice and change. That day also began the tradition of going out into the community to help others. That first year, students visited senior homes where students shared their musical talents, played games, or just engaged in casual conversation. Others stocked shelves at food pantries, cleaned kennels at animal shelters, and maintained hiking trails at the Pomfret Audubon Society.
There was concern that this heartfelt tradition, like so many other things in the past year, would be negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But Rectory persevered and committed to making the experience at least as impactful as in the past. Mission accomplished.
"Each year, we celebrate the work of Dr. King by inviting a speaker to broaden the Rectory students' lens and participate in acts of service. This year we knew we needed more," said Rectory's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Director, Melissa Zahansky, "and it is our unceasing responsibility as educators to keep the conversation of equality and social justice going."
According to Mrs. Zahansky, the DEI Executive Committee established three goals for the school year ahead:
- Establish a DEI program to be implemented through our Advisory program.
- Develop and implement an educational component to our Martin Luther King Day of Service.
- Provide DEI professional development for all departments.
Mrs. Zahansky said, "Rectory's History Department Team Leader, Jamie Haines, along with the rest of the history department, was given the charge to develop an education component to accompany the community service and speaker. This was no easy feat, given the constraints of COVID."
"As a part of the DEI Committee, I volunteered to lead the MLK Jr. Day of Service Committee and to involve the history department," said Mrs. Haines. "Last year, a survey of the students showed that over half did not know who Martin Luther King Jr. was and/or didn't understand why we celebrate him on this day, and how Rectory's acts of service connected to him. We wanted to engage our students in learning, not just about MLK Jr., but also the American Black experience through the centuries. We wanted our students to better understand what is happening in their communities and country, what the causes of these events are stretching through time over the last 400 hundred years, and to then understand what part they can play in it. We saw this as imperative for our students to truly connect to the purpose and power of MLK Jr. Day."
"The educational piece focussed on three areas: English, Health & Wellness, and Music and Art with an overlying theme of protest and empathy," continued Mrs. Haines. "Students engaged in works created by black authors and artists throughout time, were educated in the injustices and inequalities but also the hope and beauty within the Black American experience and were tasked with thinking about what they could do to take action in their lives--both big and small, including becoming more empathetic and active listeners. Hopefully, this full and well-rounded experience of MLK Jr. Day of Service will live in the hearts and minds of our students as they move forward in their lives."
Thanks to the Rectory Parents' Association (RPA) and Director of Residential Life and Student Counseling Justin Bendall, our middle school students were treated to a virtual visit from Mr. Howard Bryant, an award-winning author of nine books, including Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field. Mr. Bryant is an ESPN The Magazine senior writer and a Sports Correspondent for NPR's Weekend Edition. Amongst his recognitions are a Casey Award, the 2019 Nonfiction Award from the American Library Association's Black Caucus, and the Harry Shaw and Katrina Hazard Donald Award for Outstanding Work in African American Studies.
Despite COVID, students were still able to perform acts of service. Earlier in the month, elementary school students began a Krispy Kreme donut fundraiser. The goal was to raise enough money to make ten Placement Packs for Covenant to Care for Children. A dozen Krispy Kreme donuts were available for purchase for $10.00 with $5.25 used to purchase essential personal items and a few "goodies" to comfort a child through the trauma of entering a strange, new environment. Maria Carpenter, Rectory's director of elementary, reported that 132 dozen donuts were ordered, which enabled them to purchase supplies for the ten packs plus donate over $500 to Covenant to Care for Children. In addition to assembling the Placement Packs on the afternoon of January 18, elementary students also painted Rocks of Hope and made comfort and knot blankets.
“Having to plan the day differently because of COVID turned into such a great opportunity for our children,” Mrs. Carpenter said. “The elementary school teachers felt the Covenant to Care for Children project was an authentic way to teach children about the importance of service to others. The students packed the backpacks, and the packs were each for a specific child. One backpack was for a 14-year-old girl. The student packing that backpack carefully chose the backpack and pajamas for that particular girl. The student then chose personal care items, books, and games that they thought that girl would enjoy. It was very meaningful because they were able to do the work and think about the child they were helping.”
Rectory's middle school boarding students remained in their dorm cohort groups in the afternoon and participated in a range of service activities, which were coordinated by Diana Richardson, assistant to the Head of School. Students decorated cupcakes, Valentine’s Day cards, and bookmarks for Meals on Wheels to pass out on Valentine's Day; cooked meals and wrote cards for local families in need; and helped Christ Church redecorate bulletin boards inside the church. They removed invasive flora at Audubon and worked on the grounds around campus; cleaned various classrooms and other locations around campus; painted mugs and inspirational rocks for local nursing homes; prepared play areas for students to use on campus; and made bluebird boxes to support a local conservation agency.
Although not present on campus on January 18, middle school day students who were learning remotely and the students in our Online School participated in Rectory's decade-long tradition of providing service by doing good for others in whatever form they chose—whether on that day or sometime during the month of January. New for this year, in celebration of its Centennial year, Rectory invited families, alumni, and friends to also respond to Dr. King's question, "What are you doing for others?" The goal is to achieve 100 acts of service to recognize Rectory's 100 years of operation.
Head of School Fred Williams, said, "This was another incredibly meaningful and engaging day. Thank you to all who helped modify the day to fit the COVID constraints. The educational piece was powerful, the speaker one of the best yet, and the flow of the day, with the service activities in the afternoon, much better. I am proud of our school and our students for being positive contributors to the greater Pomfret area and to our global community. I also hope this experience will encourage our students to pursue volunteerism on their own."
Summing up the success of the day, Mrs. Zahansky said, "One of the biggest lessons of the day came from our keynote speaker Howard Bryant who shared his experience being a black student in a predominantly white school, '...being different didn't mean being incorrect.' This message resonated with our student body, as they are discovering developmentally who they are during middle school, and more importantly, who they want to become. We hope that on MLK day each year that our students learn to be educated, empathetic humans, and that this learning resonates beyond Rectory and shapes their future accomplishments."
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