By: Jami Centrella and students
When the start of the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the world in 2020, it seemed we had been transported to an alternate universe. It was as though we had, overnight, become people of a newly formed Gotham City and were now being terrorized by an invisible villain. We were left searching for our bat signals, hoping that if we all shined them together, they would be just bright enough for someone to come save us all. We were trapped in the ultimate vortex of good versus evil, and more than anything, we longed for a hero.
As the pandemic progressed, we found heroes in our doctors, nurses, scientists, frontline workers, teachers and school cafeteria workers, and while they could not save the world from the gravity of the pandemic, they responded to our cries with the same bravery and tenacity that Batman himself would have brought. They worked tirelessly to help us see that it was not the light of the bat signal that had encouraged them to spring into action, but instead, it was the hope inside each of us that shined brightest of all, and we could not let that hope die.
I have always enjoyed reading stories of heroes and villains with my students. I love to see them explain the traits they admire most in the story’s victor. I cherish the empathy they bring to discovering a hero’s tragic flaw, and consequently, learn to embrace their own imperfections. However, this year, as a citizen of this new Gotham City, I was faced with the ultimate choice: do I continue to teach my students how to only read about heroes or do I let them learn how to be one?
When I became Gloucester County Teacher of the Year, I wanted the platform to be more than just holding a title. I wanted it to be tangible and visible, not just to my colleagues, administration and community, but most of all to my students. I have always believed that students will never see the value of the content I am teaching them unless they first learn that they hold value, so it was natural for me to take on social and emotional learning as a part of my mission. I wanted to help my students find their place in this world—not 20 years from now—right now. I wanted them to see how they too can fill the role of the heroes that they always admire in the books we read. But how I was going to make this mission actionable, while fighting the villain of Gotham City … well, that became the challenge.
They say that you will find your place in this world when you discover where the need for compassion meets your greatest passion, so I decided the best place to start my mission was at the place I knew held my own, personal hero.
The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) is a national organization whose goal is to create a world without blood cancer. Funds donated to LLS are used to help create a better quality of life for the patients and their families who battle various blood cancers every day. LLS also support research to help find a cure for the, often fatal, disease.
This organization has been near to my heart for some time, after a family member of mine lost his battle to acute myeloid leukemia in 2014. He had been influential in my life, and after he passed away, left me with a great desire to accomplish all he believed I was destined to be. He was, and always will be, my hero.
I knew there had to be a way to bridge my personal hero and my school of heroes, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon LLS’s Hero Squad Program that I knew exactly how to make it happen. This community service-based program empowers students to raise funds for LLS both individually and collectively. Students also learn about the way blood cancers affect the body through LLS’s extensive STEM+ resources, which are provided to each school with which it partners.
When I first learned about the program, I was instantly ready to get involved. I knew Gotham City was longing for heroes daily, and I knew this was the perfect way to help with the search. I worked with the organization to create a promotional video encouraging schools across the county to get involved with the Hero Squad Program. Once I laid the groundwork for all of Gotham City, I knew it was time to get to work with my own school of heroes.
I began planning our Hero Squad Fundraiser by meeting with my school’s Student Council representatives, Neko Faust and Riley Hunter. I knew that I wanted all aspects of this project to be their ideas, their plans and their mission. Given the times in which we live, we met virtually during my office hours one afternoon. I told the two girls about LLS and the Hero Squad Program, and I was met with great enthusiasm when I proposed we hold a fundraiser for the organization.
We decided we would break the fundraiser into two pieces: a schoolwide pretzel sale and an individual opportunity for students to fundraise in whatever way they were able.
The girls were most excited about coordinating the pretzel fundraiser. They were determined to make this project succeed, and they wanted to be involved in every aspect. They emailed me with ideas, they designed promotional flyers, and they tried to be inclusive of all students and their ability to participate by setting a fair price point for the pretzels.
I was awestruck by Neko and Riley. These girls were truly planning something that was going to make a difference, and they knew it. In a year that was wrapped up in so many things that made these students feel powerless, maybe even a bit hopeless, this project gave them a way to positively impact the world. This project was theirs from the beginning and now its success has become theirs to share.
At the time of writing this article, we are in the midst of the individual fundraising efforts by the students in our school. We have held a Hero Squad themed spirit week, and all of our students have learned about the science behind the different blood cancers. Also as of the time of this article, we have raised over $1,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, well over our schoolwide goal of $500.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that while Neko and Riley were the face of our Student Council in this project, there was so much support from within my school and at the district level. The morning of the pretzel fundraiser, it seemed as though every teacher in the school was willing to wear a pair of gloves and help distribute pretzels. The Township of Franklin Board of Education, Superintendent Troy Walton, and Reutter Principal Theodore Peters were extremely supportive and involved in the project, and the entire community was so willing to support the cause by buying pretzels. It has been said that every hero needs a squad, and I am truly thankful for all of the support behind this project.
As a society, we are one year into the unprecedented battles of our Gotham City. There are days where it seems the invisible villain has been defeated, and days where it seems that defeat is just the rising of a new enemy. Yet, in a time filled with sickness, social unrest, and a longing for escape, I find myself still hopeful for this new generation. They have not been defeated by the darkness around them, but instead they have brought light to it. They have inspired hope. A hope for rest. A hope for healing. And a hope for the rise of new heroes in Gotham City.
By: Neko Faust and Riley Hunter
Neko Faust and Riley Hunter are sixth graders at Caroline L. Reutter School in Franklinville, Gloucester County. They are two of Reutter School’s Student Council representatives.
The Hero Squad Fundraiser was so much fun to plan and to carry out. When one of our super teachers, Ms. Centrella, brought up the idea of doing a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, we nearly jumped out of our skin. The thought of helping so many people was almost incomprehensible. Neko brought up the idea of a pretzel sale. We could both see the idea going over extremely well, so we immediately got to work.
Before anything could begin, we had to bring the idea to the school board. While Ms. Centrella convinced the board to allow us to do it, we both went to work creating flier ideas along with a slogan, as a way to get the school pumped. We hung the fliers around the school, and the school handed out papers for the pretzel orders. Our classes were so excited to participate and to help so many people. During our character assembly, Ms. Centrella talked up the fundraiser and explained how it was much more than just “selling pretzels.” Then came the day of handing out the pretzels.
The day we handed out the salty snacks, the school was buzzing with excitement. Teachers, students and parents were ecstatic to get their pretzels. We know of one girl who ordered 15 pretzels and one who ordered 30! Neko helped individually wrap over 750 pretzels. All of the snacks were packed with care and placed on individual carts to be taken to their destination. Each pretzel was labeled perfectly for its student or teacher. Then, one by one, all the pretzels vanished from the cart and into the hands of the heroes that donated to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. We all felt like superheroes that day.
Personally, we both felt like world changers and realized that although it was something small, if everyone in the world did something like this, the planet would be blooming with love, positivity and well-being. Being a part of the Hero Squad and knowing how much people would benefit from it was truly an amazing honor. How can people not be honored to help those who are hurt and who may be living their last day? How can you not feel good about yourself knowing that somewhere in the world you are helping to make someone’s life better? No matter what challenges you face, you can’t stop working because you know that people are relying on you, even if they don’t know it themselves.
We, of course, had some challenges along the way such as getting the board of education to approve our idea and advertising our fundraiser, but it was worth it because we knew we were making people smile. That was all that mattered. It didn’t matter that we might not get credit for it or that we might not get rewarded, because we believe that saving someone’s life is a reward all by itself.
Jami Centrella is the 2020-21 Gloucester County Teacher of the Year. She is a sixth grade language arts teacher at the Caroline L. Reutter School in Franklin Township. Centrella can be reached at email@example.com.