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Tower Hill makes King Day holiday a celebration of service

Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
Tower Hill sophomore Carolline Hayper (center) joins other students in making blankets for Fleece for Keeps

Blankets for foster children, placemats for soup kitchens, hygiene kits for the homeless, books for young readers, potted plants for senior citizens.

Students and parents at Tower Hill School didn’t have something for everyone in need on Monday, but they had more than enough to go around as they marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a day of community service.

About 280 members of the school community participated in the morning of activities on what is normally the wrap-up of a three-day weekend.

“It’s not a day off, it’s a day on,” says Toni Jackson, co-chair of PAATH (Parents of African-Americans at Tower Hill), one of two parent groups that helped organize the events.

Started in 2012, the service day was originated in the belief that students would feel a greater connection to the community, and gain a better understanding of society’s needs if they were part of activities taking place across the nation.

The program has taken on an increased sense of purpose since the appointment of Bessie Speers as head of school. Upon her arrival in the fall of 2015, Speers says she wondered aloud, “What would it look like to be truly a school of Wilmington and of the world?”  And, she continues, as soon as she mentioned that phrase, “teachers, students and parents grabbed hold of it.”

And so it was, on a bitterly cold and windy morning, students and parents rolled out of bed, bundled up and headed to the century-old independent school on Wilmington’s western border. From preschoolers to high school seniors, there was something for everyone to do.

In the 1919 Room, named for the year of the school’s founding, groups assembled around large square tables for a couple of hours of blanket-making. Two 6-foot lengths of fleece, one patterned and one solid, were placed atop each other. Using a wooden template for measurement, volunteers cut into the edges of the fabric, creating strips one inch wide and about four inches long.

“They’re called no-sew blankets,” because no stitching is required, explained sophomore Caroline Hayper as she showed younger students how to knot the strips to create a warm two-layer blanket. “It’s just something for [foster children] to have that is their own,” she says. “That’s important when they have so much instability in their lives.”

After each blanket was complete, students tied them neatly with a ribbon, signed their names to a card and packed them in plastic bags. Overall, the group made 50 blankets.

Watching the students and parents at work was Sue Day, founder and executive director of Fleece for Keeps, the organization that supplies the materials for the blankets. Day started Fleece for Keeps in 2012 after mentoring a child who was in foster care while she volunteered at Mount Pleasant Elementary School. She gave the boy a blanket, and he asked her “Do I get to keep it?”

“If that’s what a blanket does, every child [in foster care] needs one,” Day says. Her organization has grown steadily, with units now in Cecil County, Maryland; Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Burlington County, New Jersey. Since 2012, she says, Fleece for Keeps has distributed more than 5,000 blankets.

Down the hallway in the school’s library, students, parents and teachers sorted used books by reading level for distribution to schools across the state. The project is the brainchild of Chloe Sachs, an eighth-grader at Tower Hill.

Credit Larry Nagengast
Larry Nagengast
Chloe Sachs, an eighth-grader at Tower Hill, gathers books to distribute to teachers statewide looking to build classroom libraries.

The idea is simple, but she’s still working out the kinks in the distribution system. She has asked friends and schoolmates to donate books in good condition that they’re unlikely to read again – especially those from summer reading assignments, she says – and she is distributing them to teachers who are trying to build up their classroom libraries.

She aims to send teachers as many books as they want as often as they need them. That’s usually about 30 books at a time, but it could be once a year, twice a year, or even monthly. “One teacher asked for books for six different reading levels, so there would be something for every student,” she says.

English teacher Michele Wrambel helped with the sorting process. Using a cellphone app called Book Scanner, she scanned the bar codes on the back covers of many books, triggering a search for publisher’s information on each volume, which then provided data on the suggested age or grade level for each book. Once the proper reading level was determined, students stacked the books in the proper pile.

Downstairs, in the cafeteria, several teams worked at crowded tables.

One filled plastic bags with toothbrushes, soap and other personal care items, bound for the Ministry of Caring. Another team colored placemats, destined for the ministry’s two Emmanuel Dining Room sites.

A third group, working in assembly line fashion, created dozens of flower pots for housing clients of Lutheran Community Services.

“First, you soak a soil pod in water, then you transfer it into a biodegradable cup,” junior Joe Zakielarz explained. On top of that goes a decorative paper flower, into which seeds have been embedded. “You put it in a box, and it’s good to go.”

Credit Larry Nagengast
Larry Nagengast
Flower pots for housing clients of Lutheran Community Services lined up and ready for delivery

While students were clearly enjoying participating in their volunteer activities, there were some learning opportunities as well, all themed around Martin Luther King Jr. and African-American history. The two parent groups, PAATH and DIstINcT (Diversity and Inclusion at Tower Hill), created several games. One asked students to match historic figures with snippets from their biographies. Another was a Jeopardy-styled quiz about King’s life.

Joining Tower Hill students for the activities were small groups of students from the Charter School of Wilmington, Linden Hill Elementary in Pike Creek and 20 girls from Serviam Academy, a tuition-free private middle school near New Castle.

Kim Fabbri, Tower Hill’s director of service learning, coordinated the event and was pleased not only with participants’ enthusiasm but also with the size of the turnout. By late last week, about 150 students and family members had registered, but the actual number of participants nearly doubled that estimate.

Tower Hill’s community services initiatives carried on throughout the week – at least for 75 members of the sophomore class. Last year the school initiated what it calls “Tower Term,” a week of project-based learning activities, at the close of the spring semester. This year the program is running at the end of both the fall and spring semesters.

As their Tower Term projects, Fabbri said, sophomores could volunteer from Tuesday through Friday at one of nine different agencies: Habitat for Humanity, the Ronald McDonald House of Delaware, Mom’s House childcare, Head Start programs, Tri-State Bird & Rescue, Faithful Friends Animal Society, Rodney Street Tutoring and Tennis, Waggies by Maggie and Friends, and Ingleside Homes.

In addition, Fabbri said, Tower Hill students who do not participate in athletics during the winter sports season may meet their activity requirement through a “season of service,” volunteering in tutoring and after-school programs at three locations near New Castle: Serviam, Hope Educational Resource Center and the Boys & Girls Club.

“Service is a way of life, and it helps us come together as entire school,” says Dyann Connor, Tower Hill’s director of social justice. “We’re trying to build a kinder, more inclusive community, and service helps us accomplish just that.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.