Middle level students are at a crucial age, consciously developing their identities while trying to understand how they fit in with their peers. Teachers, administrators, and staff have the opportunity to provide a compass for students navigating these difficult times. As middle level students develop their sense of self, they often begin looking for ways to make an impact in their community. This materializes in a desire to pursue a cause, do fundraising, and participate in charities.

At Downington Middle School and Lionville Middle School, we leveraged this knowledge to create a special event that encouraged students to pursue a cause. And in doing so, we built positive school culture centered around the students’ desire to be of service to others.

Several years ago, our district opened a sixth-grade center which brought students together from both sides of the community into one singular building. Right after the sixth-grade year, students would return to the typical feeding pattern for middle school and high school. Both middle schools wanted to create a culminating event giving students a chance to reunite with their friends. We struggled to think of an idea that could safely and effectively bring together 2,500 students.

At an impasse, we began consulting other principals and school districts in an effort to find inspiration. We found it in a neighboring county. In Delaware County, PA, an awesome event known as the Potter Cup takes place where rival middle schools in two different districts compete against each other in sports throughout the year. Fundraising occurred during each of their sporting events to support one singular charity, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which has raised over $150 million for children’s cancer research and was started by a 4-year old cancer patient.

We loved the idea and brought it to our two middle schools’ student council organizations to get their thoughts. The students were very familiar with Alex’s Lemonade Stand and immediately decided that they, too, wanted our event to contribute to that charity. We knew that we were on the road to success because the students had quickly identified a worthy cause. Over the next several months, our best students and teachers worked on the idea.

Instead of a yearlong event, we consolidated everything into one massive “field day” that we call Unity Cup held at the end of May in our all-weather stadium. With four rotations including a carnival midway (with cotton candy, dunk tanks, water ice, and face painting), small group games (Gaga, Ladder Ball, Washers, Cornhole, Horseshoes, Bocce, and more), giant inflatables, and large group games (where students between schools competed in fun activities like ‘Sling the Chicken’ and Tug of War), all 2,500 students from both schools could hang out for a fun afternoon together with friends from both sides of the district.

Prior to the event, both schools hold separate fundraisers to boost the total for Alex’s Lemonade Stand. While the kids look forward to being together, the glue that holds the event together is the fundraising and service aspect. And that goes for our staff as well as our students. Over the past four years, we’ve raised close to $100,000 for Alex’s Lemonade Stand. We hope to break that mark this coming year. While the event has always faced large logistical challenges from an organizational perspective, we’ve succeeded each year because the event is intended to serve others and benefit a special cause. The spirit of the event is best captured by Ellie Paparone, who was the Community Engagement Coordinator for Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation:

Unity Cup is one of my favorite days of the year and today was absolutely incredible! I was so blown away by how well-organized and extravagant everything was; all the time and energy you all put into the Unity Cup was very clear and appreciated. I was even more impressed by how into it all the staff was … that is truly special! What I was most impressed with, however, were the students. Their enthusiasm was absolutely palpable, and it was clear that they genuinely cared about raising money for our Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. While manning the lemonade stand, so many of the students stopped to say thank you, even when we were working behind the stand. They would interrupt their own conversations with friends to stop and thank us, even though we should be the ones thanking them.

By tapping into their desire to serve, we have helped to guide students as the find their way through the often turbulent waters of middle school. What better than to instill in students the importance of serving others as they figure out who they are and how they fit into the world.

How does your school build positive culture through service activities?

Nicholas Indeglio, EdD, is the principal of Downingtown Middle School in Downingtown, PA. He is the 2017 Digital Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @DrIndeglio

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