Their stories of hardship and victimization differ in the details and span generations and geographic boundaries. But what a 14-year-old boy from the south of Sudan, a former teacher who went blind at ‘6, one of the "Boys of Buchenwald," a championship teenage wheelchair athlete, a survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing, a financial analyst for the Port Authority who escaped from the 73rd floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower on Sept. 11, ‘001, a black minister imprisoned in 1963 for attending a meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and a Rwandan refugee who lost her husband, newborn daughter, and most of her extended family have in common is a message of courage in the face of adversity, tolerance of differences, and perseverance in overcoming the odds to build successful lives and careers. In the process, they have also endeavored to make the world more peaceful and compassionate.
Eighth-graders Chris Bickel and Pat Reynolds hung origami peace swans in every school hall for "3R Day." The swans were made by fifth-graders and the mural, designed by art teacher Jenn Doolittle, was painted by student volunteers. photo by Alison krawiec faubert
These extraordinary people are just several of the 50 guests slated to speak at the Fieldstone Middle School in Montvale today as part of "Respect, Reflect, and Remember Day," organized by vice principal Mark Maire and sponsored and facilitated by the Parent-Teacher Organization under the leadership of PTO vice president Irene McNally. The school has 460 students in grades five through eight in this borough of 7,000 residents.
Other speakers include victims of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, a reporter who suffers from cerebral palsy, a writer who advocates for animal rights on behalf of deaf dogs, a women’s rights activist, and World War II concentration camp liberators, as well as others who have started or work for non-profit organizations and foundations that provide support and assistance to disadvantaged groups.
One such speaker is Montvale resident Bill Villafranco, who three years ago founded Footprints in the Sand Foundation to help families in northern New Jersey and southern Rockland County access needed medical, educational, and therapeutic services. Two Spring Valley Rotarians, both Vietnam veterans, are spearheading a fund-raising campaign to build a school in the Mekong Delta, an impoverished area near the Cambodian border. They plan to return to Vietnam for the school’s dedication this fall. A Cherry Hill pediatrician, Dr. Jerry Erhlich, spent a year in Sri Lanka during the country’s civil war as a volunteer for Doctors Without Borders. More recently, on a mission with the organization to Darfur, he smuggled out drawings by children in the war-torn region by concealing them in his newspaper.
Public officials on the roster are Montvale’s superintendent of schools, Dr. Sue King; Dr. Joan Rivitz, New Jersey’s commissioner of civil rights; and state Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R- Dist. 39), who will conclude the program by presenting each speaker with a certificate of honor.
The inspiration for the day came from Vernoy Paolini, a veteran educator in the Vernon Township School District and former New Jersey Teacher of the Year, who in ‘000 created "Peace Day," which the district now holds every two years. Maire said that when he had the opportunity to attend the program in Vernon, he felt it was something he had to bring home to Montvale, an affluent district where he believed students would benefit from learning about adversity from people who had firsthand experience.
Fortunately, Paolini was more than willing, said Maire, to share her contact information for speakers and help Montvale map out the structure of the event. "One of her best lines is that as educators, we have to share. We hope to do the same and hopefully, other districts will adopt the program," said Maire. Paolini, who now teaches the Schoolwide Enrichment Program at the Lounsberry Hollow Middle School in Vernon, is among the scheduled speakers at Fieldstone.
Students and teachers at Fieldstone have been preparing for weeks, as have the parents and other community residents, about 45 of whom have volunteered to handle the myriad details, large and small, which, Maire said, added up to "a daunting task."
With Holocaust and genocide studies state-mandated for middle school students, much of what will be presented today has been incorporated into the social studies curriculum. Nonetheless, Maire noted, the sheer number and variety of speakers on the program will give faculty a context and dimension for their lessons not ordinarily accessible to the classroom. McNally said, "It adds color to [what they read in] textbooks [because] they hear and see someone who had the experience and can relate it to being 13 years old, because he is talking to 13-year-olds about what his life was like [back then] and why. It fleshes out the concepts and statistics." Many of the Holocaust survivors on the program, Maire said, have had their accounts documented in books or films.
Earlier this week, the entire student body viewed a ‘0-minute documentary created to introduce them to the themes and speakers, said Maire. Following the program’s conclusion, students will return to their homerooms to reflect on what they’ve seen and heard. "It’s very important to the program that they [students] leave with a positive message about tolerance and overcoming adversity," said Maire.
In a brochure that outlined the goals of the program, the school proposed to "Rewrite the Three Rs." The value of respect would be conveyed by listening to "the inspirational stories and interact[ing] with the guests, gaining an appreciation for the positive aspects of their own lives and understanding of the challenges that face others"; reflection was designed to lead to "personal plans for how they themselves can have a positive impact on others"; and students would be encouraged to remember the day’s lessons when encountering challenges of their own in the future and be motivated to give back to improve their community.
As part of the excitement leading up to today, students have been raising money to help defray the associated costs, chief among these transportation and overnight accommodations for speakers who are coming from up and down the eastern seaboard. "Fieldstone Middle School Cares" bracelets have been hot sellers, said Maire, even in the borough’s Memorial Elementary School. There has also been a lively "penny war," which Maire described as a competition among the grades to see which can collect the most money, with change increasing a grade’s tally, but bills subtracting from it. Thus, while students are furiously adding coins to inflate their own jars’ totals, they are just as eagerly trying to offset other jars’ gains by throwing in bills. During a recent "Spirit Week" at the school, students each donated a dollar for every day they participated, dressing up according to the announced theme of the day.
The bulk of the financing of "Respect, Reflect, and Remember Day," which has cost in excess of $10,000, has come from the district PTO’s general fund to support yearlong curriculum enhancement. Money is raised through sales of gift-wrap paper, hot food, and baked goods to sponsor special programs in arts and culture and discovery. To supplement general fund contributions, some Fieldstone families paid $100 to sponsor individual speakers.
The program, which will run from 7:30 a.m. to ‘:30 p.m., is open to the community.