Middle school can be tough. By definition, middle schoolers often find themselves "in the middle." Too young for some things, but too old for others. Not quite a kid, but not quite an adult. Add in the uncertainty and challenges of the last two-plus years with the pandemic, and this difficult stage of life has become even more stressful for students.
But this past school year, dozens of Wisconsin middle schoolers had a special opportunity to work together to focus on the positive and put their unique stamp on their schools and community. By utilizing $500 grants through the Packers Character Playbook Community Impact Grant program, these remarkable students proved they're anything but "in the middle." In fact, they are at the forefront of positive change in their communities.
Through the program, the students embarked on their own journey to change the world by starting where it would be most impactful: in their very own schools and neighborhoods.
Character Playbook, a platform through the NFL and United Way, teaches students about the importance of service and giving back, as well as cultivating and maintaining healthy relationships. Since 2016, Character Playbook has reached more than a million students in over 12,000 schools. In NFL markets around the country, teams use the Character Playbook platform to engage with middle school students, and the Packers frequently connect with Wisconsin middle schools to utilize the program's lessons.
One component of the Packers' involvement with Character Playbook is the team's Community Impact Grant program, which has now completed its second year. The Packers again worked with the NFL and Brown County United Way to fund the program and invite Wisconsin middle school students to develop service projects to directly impact their schools, neighborhoods or community. The goal is to empower students to identify a need in their community and determine how they could best address it.
Throughout the state, from the northwest region to the southeast corner of Wisconsin, middle schoolers answered the call from the Packers for community service project ideas. The students created project proposals to address a wide variety of need areas, hoping to earn a $500 grant to fund the implementation of their plans. Service project ideas could include painting and refurbishing common areas, creating welcome kits for immigrant families or planning neighborhood beautification projects.
When this year's students presented their ideas to the Character Playbook panel in December, the adults on the panel were blown away by their insightfulness and enthusiasm toward making their projects a success.
"It was incredible to meet with so many kids who recognized issues in their schools and communities and had ideas for how to address them," said Packers community outreach manager Amanda Wery. "With the support of their teachers, they felt empowered to take on these challenges and they learned about how they could be most impactful. They had such great ideas and displayed amazing teamwork and drive to make their schools a better place."
After the students presented their project proposals to the panel, groups from 13 different schools ended up earning a grant. For one grant recipient, St. Joseph School in Baraboo, what started as a project for just a few students ended up involving the entire student body. Using the funds from the grant, the students at St. Joseph School in Baraboo created "Helping Our Community from Head to Toe," aimed at assisting those in the local homeless shelter. The students hosted several drives for hygiene and clothing items to donate to the shelter, fostered healthy competition with inter-classroom penny wars and worked with their school kitchen staff to make meals to help feed those staying in the shelter.
"What I enjoyed is watching all the kids' participation. How we set it up, not only our middle school, but the entire school really bought into this whole idea of serving our community," said Sarah Connor, the Middle School Lead Teacher at St. Joseph School. "It just floored me what these kids were able to do once they set their minds to it. You hear so many bad things that are happening, but it was amazing to see the competitiveness between the grades, and even siblings, but they all knew it was going toward a project. When we filled the gym with all the things that were donated and what we purchased with these funds, we loaded four vehicles and sent loads over to the shelters. Those kids that carried stuff in, they saw the reactions of these ladies and gentlemen that were at these facilities. And they were floored at what our little school could do and what our community could do."
Several other grant recipients developed projects to help families in need, too, particularly their fellow students. When students in the family and consumer education class at Savannah Oaks Middle School in Fitchburg took the lead on researching project ideas, they discovered that some of their classmates had experienced transitional housing and have been dealing with the challenges of housing insecurity.
Their project, "A Place to Rest Your Head," became a way for the Savannah Oaks students to connect with kids in transitional housing, particularly school-aged children who are entering the Domestic Abuse Intervention Services of Dane County. Because kids in those situations often don't have many personal items of their own, the students at Savannah Oaks decided to sew unique pillowcases and attach inspiring messages.
"From student to student, we want other children to know that we see them, we value them and that they matter," one student involved in the project said. "We also want to bring comfort to them by giving them a place to rest their head."
The students in the class used funding from the grant to select and purchase fabric and other sewing materials, and kids from multiple grades got involved with sewing the pillowcases, with the goal of giving the kids in transitional housing something special that can belong only to them.
Middle school students from Clarke Street School in Milwaukee also set their sights on supporting their peers, with their project "Teens Supporting Teens" assembling kits for teenagers in need. Sparked by conversations the students had with their teacher about how kids their age can become homeless through no fault of their own, the students wanted to help by providing necessities and toiletries to the teens in need. The students involved with the project created a list of items and helped assemble the kits to distribute.
The group of students from Parkview Middle School in Ashwaubenon also wanted to create a way to support other kids, focusing instead on the spaces within the walls of their school. They used the grant's funds to pilot the Relaxation Station, a permanent space at the school meant to provide a spot for students who are struggling during the school day. After securing a place that could be devoted to the Relaxation Station, the students decorated with wall art and soft lighting and filled the space with a variety of tools to help each other regulate their emotions, from toys like slime and puzzles, to Zen gardens and beanbag chairs. In the early stages of the room being accessible, school counselors estimated that at least 10 kids each day were utilizing the space to regroup, recharge and relax as needed. While some of the students involved in the project are planning to head off to high school in the fall, they said they're proud to be leaving the space behind for future students to use.
Red Smith School in Green Bay took a different approach to fostering a sense of community and creating positive ripples in their school by using the funds to purchase and install a new flag display in the library. The school's Unity Club took the lead on the project, conducting a school-wide survey to determine what flags the students thought would best represent the student body, including different international flags, local flags and identity flags.
"This was really student-motivated from the get-go," said Blair Swiekatowski, a teacher at Red Smith and advisor for the Unity Club. "Students brought a lot of energy to the project and it was purposeful…seeing the kids come in from other countries and see their flag up there, they have a big smile on their face."
Among the 28 flags displayed include Oneida Nation, Autism Awareness, Pan-Africa, Japan, Thailand, Australia, Mexico, Transgender and Pride Progress, European Union and of course, Wisconsin and the United States.
Similarly, the Asian American/Pacific Islander Club from Lombardi Middle School in Green Bay also chose to use the funds from the grant to focus on celebrating the identities of their students, with a selfie wall mural helping promote diversity, inclusion and empowerment to the various cultures at their school.
With school wrapping up for the year within the last several weeks, Wery had an opportunity to reflect on how it felt to help spark positive change in areas throughout Wisconsin through the grant program.
"It's been special to be a part of and see how students in various parts of the state created completely different projects to address a need," Wery said. "Some focused on their school communities specifically, whereas others focused on the wider community. While the Packers and United Way facilitated this program, it's really the students and the teachers that brought their ideas to life. We're so proud to support their efforts to enhance their communities.
The full list of grant recipient schools and their projects is below:
- Barron Area School District -- Warm Well Wishes for Those in Need
- Clarke Street School, Milwaukee -- Teens Supporting Teens
- Lance Middle School, Kenosha -- Kids for the Environment – Outdoor Classroom
- Lombardi Middle School, Green Bay – Asian American Pacific Islander Club Mural
- Milwaukee College Prep (36th Street) -- R.O.S.E.S. (Resilient, Outgoing, Strong, Educated, Stunning)
- Northern Ozaukee School District, Fredonia -- Eco STREAM-MS STEM Program
- Parkview Middle School, Ashwaubenon -- Relaxation Station
- Pittsville Elementary School -- Adapting to Outdoor Learning: More Engagement and Fun for All!
- Red Smith School, Green Bay -- Building Community and Culture with Flags
- St. Joseph School, Baraboo -- Helping Our Community from Head to Toe
- Savanna Oaks Middle School, Fitchburg -- A Place to Rest Your Head
- Sharon Community School -- Outdoor Early Childhood Education Space
- Sheboygan Leadership Academy -- Update school counselor classroom into a student break room