June 22, 2017

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Struck by Tragedy, a NY High School Heals Through “Compassionate Making”

Out of tragedy came something positive in a Long Island, NY, community.

Anil John, who had immersed himself in sports and clubs throughout his four years at Islip High School, was killed in an auto accident shortly before his 18th birthday in late 2015.

20161028_113130-1That left the entire school reeling. Karen Volkmann, the Students Against Destructive Decisions club advisor and an English teacher, knew her students had to do something to start healing, not just talk. She also knew who could help her figure out what: Gina Seymour, the school’s library media specialist. “I went to Gina. And she didn’t miss a beat, saying, ‘We’re going to make buttons!’” (Never mind that Seymour didn’t have a button maker. She borrowed one.) Her maker space was soon packed with students assembling buttons bearing John’s photo. The buttons would be worn at a basketball game played in his honor, which his parents were attending. More than 400 buttons were made in two days.

In school maker spaces, students learn about STEM, artistic expression, and sustainability. As great as all that is, there’s even more they can derive: compassion and civic engagement.  That’s exactly what Seymour—by forging partnerships with nearly everyone in the school—has been fostering in the past year.

The “Compassionate Maker”

While Seymour had always been an active proponent of the perks of making, the loss of John “took me to a new level,” she says. “Making is fun, and it teaches a lot, but there are other people out there.” So her MakerCare Program was born, dedicated to nurturing public service among her students while benefiting organizations both local and international. Students carry out hands-on service projects, creating things not just for the sake of making stuff, but to make a difference in the world.

Students who need community service hours, service-based school clubs, the sewing classes, plus, of course, teens who just want to help others are all among those who flock to the MakerCare section of Seymour’s ever-expanding maker space on the second floor of the sprawling suburban school.

Who’s being helped and how?

20161028_101318The list of beneficiaries of MakerCare is as long and varied as the partners Seymour has cultivated to make the program happen. “The beauty of it is that I collaborate with my colleagues even more now; it’s truly remarkable. One of our elementary schools is even using MakerCare as part of their character education program,” says Seymour.

Shelter dogs. Teens have used recycled fabric from t-shirts and jeans (sometimes their own) to make dog toys for the local animal shelter. This simple toy made from fabric rope and discarded tennis balls (courtesy of the tennis coach), can bring the pooches, kenneled all day, a little joy. MakerCare will also be running a fundraising sale of the toys to help a local Boy Scout defray the costs of his Eagle Scout project, a pet adoption drive.

Breast cancer survivors. Comfort pillows are part of the repertoire of MakerCare teens as well. The pretty cushions go to women recovering from breast cancer to make them more comfortable post-surgery.

African school girls. Heidi Stevens’s sewing students will be making pillowcase dresses for African school girls with Seymour, through Little Dresses for Africa.

Sewing teacher Heidi Stevens with one of the Little Dresses for Africa her students made through the MakerCare Program.

Sewing teacher Heidi Stevens with one of the dresses her students made through MakerCare.

Forgotten kitties. Several of Stevens’s sewing students are also stitching catnip toys for a Long Island stray cat rescue group. The effort began when Seymour learned that the group receives many donated handmade cat toys, but they’re often over-stitched, and the cats could swallow the thread. Seymour approached Stevens about having her students, who had mastered more advanced stitching methods, step in.

Hospital patients. Even principal Michael Mosca recently recognized an opportunity that “had Gina written all over it.”  Soon art and English classes will work in tandem to decorate and write postcards to send to people confined to hospitals across the country. Seymour is planning to orchestrate the project through PostcardPickMeUp.org.

The Homeless. What’s plarn? It’s strings of plastic grocery bags, tied end to end, that is woven with a crochet hook, to make sleep mats for homeless persons—like plastic yarn. Many of the staff members at the school have taken on the collecting and tying of the bags. Makercare participants need all the help they can get: it takes 500–700 bags to make one mat.

Plarn!

Plarn, a durable and pest-resistant material with which MakerCare participants fashion sleep mats for the homeless.

Art teacher Lorraine Knoblauch works with Seymour, with an assist from the woodshop instructor, in directing students in how to make wood transfer plaques for Habitat for Humanity, as well as key holders. Rather than the “welcome home” sign a family typically gets when moving in, Knoblauch suggested trying wood transfers of an inspirational quote, chosen by the family themselves. The first MakerCare plaque went to a family in Wyandanch, NY.

Partners in crime Gina Seymour (left) and art teacher Lorraine Knoblauch.

Partners in crime Gina Seymour (left) and Susan Riche, business teacher and Habitat for Humanity advisor.

 

Charity begins at home…or at school

While MakerCare is touching lives on the outside, the maker space has become a form of outreach to two populations within the school.

Rita Dockswell’s special education students wanted a craft club, but with a tech twist. She knew Seymour had the tech know-how to dovetail with her own traditional crafting background, so they’ve been playing tag team. “It’s worked out beautifully,” says Dockswell.  Some of their hybrid tech-traditional projects have included a fabric flower that lights up via conductive copper tape, touch screen gloves with conductive thread at the fingertip, and a felt hat in the school colors, juiced up with littleBits, with a moving letter I for Islip (which principal Mosca sported in a parade).

Dockswell and Seymour concur that special ed students really respond to maker activities. Seymour recalls one boy who, on the first day of school, told her he didn’t like people and wanted to sit alone. She obliged him, setting him up with Snap Circuits. He went from mumbling and avoiding eye contact to sitting with four new friends, laughing and building alongside them, in three months.

Seymour’s reputation for seizing on new collaborations, including the one with Dockswell, is known to everyone in the building. Even the security guards want in. “This big, beefy guy comes up to me and says ‘I like crafts.’ I was like….Okaaay….Turns out, he wanted to teach my kids for a session,” she recalls. The sight of this burly security guard excitedly demonstrating decoupage, then, on a second occasion, how to make a macramé shell necklace, said it all, recalls Dockswell.

Gina Seymour, left, with principal Michael Mosca and ELL coordinator Claudia Osorio

Gina Seymour, left, with principal Michael Mosca and ELL coordinator Claudia Osorio

The English Language Learners (ELL) at Islip High School speak, altogether, 17 languages. Claudia Osorio, ELL coordinator, explains that these kids often have a hard time acclimating to the school community. “They may do fine in their classroom, with their group, but they struggle with integrating with the rest of the school. Recognition for a job well done, being able to complete a task successfully outside of their ELL classroom, means a lot,” she says.

Seymour explains how the maker space becomes an oasis for these kids. “They can more easily achieve measurable success here, since pieces, parts, supplies….transcend language.” She gives the specific example of littleBits being color-coded. “Before you know it,” she continues, “they are communicating quite a bit in English.” For example, while many such kits come with directions in Spanish, the Spanish-speaking students try not to rely on them. “They don’t necessarily need them, and more often than not they complete a project without them. That builds confidence, which then transfers elsewhere.”

As Dockswell points out, there always seem to be a flurry of charity activity in schools from Thanksgiving to Christmas, but “What about the rest of the year? Gina has found a way to splice outreach into the entire school term. And it’s something other librarians can do, too.”

 

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Christina Vercelletto About Christina Vercelletto

Christina Vercelletto is School Library Journal’s news editor. An award-winning writer and editor, Vercelletto has held staff positions at Babytalk, Parenting, Scholastic Parent & Child, and NYMetroParents.com.

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Comments

  1. Jolynn Sapia says:

    Hello!
    Excellent article, however the “MakerCare Program” link is not working. Would love to read more about it!
    Thank you!
    Jolynn Sapia

  2. Christina Vercelletto Christina Vercelletto says:

    Hi Jolynn,
    Apologies for the inconvenience. Looking into the issue and will update the article asap.
    Thanks for letting me know.
    Christina

  3. Keri Gould says:

    If you know anyone who makes the no-sew fleece blankets ask them for the selvage. It makes great dog toys too. You can braid it just like you do the denim and it is super strong with no strings.

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