When a group of sixth graders at Millstone Township Middle School in Millstone, N.J., were tasked with identifying an area of need in their communities—and then strategizing an action plan to address it—they decided to formally thank EMS, fire, and police responders for their service to their neighborhoods and to give a little bit back to those who risk life and limb each day.
The students make up a local chapter of Future Problem Solving Program International (FPSPI), a global voluntary initiative that challenges students to develop solutions to local and national concerns with minimal assistance from adults. Student groups write a paper on an area of concern, then devise an action plan to resolve the issue or need. Millstone Township Middle School has been an affiliate site of FPSPI for five years.
This year, the Millstone group sought ways to recognize first responders and express their gratitude for the lifesaving work they do in their community. They sent a survey to other students and found that most weren’t very familiar with what first responders do or simply misunderstood their roles.
“We did some research and found out that first responders don't get the acknowledgement that they deserve,” says Anna DePinho, one of the students involved with the project. “They sometimes get disregarded in communities, so we wanted to fix that problem.”
“From Day 1, it’s their project,” says Millstone sixth grade teacher Daniel Kazanjian of the Future Problem Solving Program International process. During a series of weekly meetings, the Millstone students conceived and executed a series of planned events throughout the school year to bring the community and the responders who serve them closer together—a “responders vs. teachers” exhibition basketball game, talent show, first responder 5K run, holiday decorating day at the firehouse, and other events.
While teachers serve in an advisory role, students take the lead on reaching out to stakeholders, handling logistics, maintaining communications, promoting events and running the budget.
Funds raised went to the First Responder branch of the Gary Sinise Foundation, which supports veterans, first responders and their families.
The “First Responders vs. Teachers” basketball game, in particular, was a major success. Volunteer EMTs, firefighters and police officers from multiple local jurisdictions attended.
“That was really fun because a lot of people from the community and students from my school came to watch it,” says DePinho. “It was cool to see their excitement towards all of it. They were really supportive and happy.” Community members also provided donations to the agencies who participated in the basketball game.
“It was one of the best I’ve seen at our school,” says Kazanjian of the basketball fundraiser. While most FPS initiatives last a single school year, the first responder awareness project has proven so popular that it may continue into the 2019-2020 school year, adds Kevin Norris, sixth grade teacher at Millstone.
“We definitely want to carry on this project into next year to get the community and first responders involved together and make sure that they can develop that bond and understand each other,” DePinho says.
But the true payoff, according to Kazanjian and Norris, is the connections built between responders and the community in a social setting.
“Nobody is making them do this,” says Kazanjian. “We’re here to guide them, but at the end of the day, this is something they wanted to do. And they did it.”
“This project has really opened up our minds,” says DePinho. “People’s attitudes changed because they saw that first responders were just people, too, and how they really help our community.”