John Jay Middle School Challenge Inspires Student Altruism

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John Jay Middle School teacher Laura Atwell explains the 26-Day Challenge to the Board of Education as some of the students who participated look on.
John Jay Middle School teacher Laura Atwell explains the 26-Day Challenge to the Board of Education as some of the students who participated look on. Photo Credit: Bob Dumas

CROSS RIVER, N.Y. – In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School last month, teachers at John Jay Middle School were looking for a way to get their students to focus on the positive things in life and inspire them to do good.

“We were wondering what we could do and how we could incorporate a way to talk to our students about it,” said Laura Atwell, a seventh-grade history teacher at the school. “We wanted to give them some empowerment.”

Thus the idea for the 26-Day Challenge was born. One hundred students each received $1 and were charged with the mission of using the money to help someone else. They had 26 days to do it.

“There were no other rules,” Atwell said.

The results, Atwell said, were astonishing.

“We were floored and we were amazed,” she said. “They were excited about it. There wasn’t a single kid who didn’t do something.”

Some students simply passed the dollar on to someone who they thought could use the money.

“One student was vacationing in Belize and gave the money to a family there,” Atwell said.

Others created more elaborate plans and used the dollar as a jumping off point to raise more money for a cause.

“Some chose to try and grow it,” Atwell said. “They started doing extra chores – babysitting, shoveling snow. They took it to a whole other level. It was a tiny pebble that created some big ripples. We were so proud.”

Some students used social media such as Facebook to grow their dollar.

“One student went on Facebook and asked people to match them dollar for dollar and used that money to donate to leukemia [research],” Atwell said. “The students donated to a wide range of causes, from Wounded Warrior to St. Jude’s Research Hospital.”

After their projects were completed, each student wrote a paragraph explaining what they did and why. The papers were mounted on the middle school walls outside the library.

Atwell said it was estimated that the original $100 turned into about $2,700 in donations.

“I’ve been sitting on the [school] board for six years and never been moved to tears,” said Board President Mark Lipton. “But these guys made it close.”

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