As part of Blair LEADS, the School’s signature leadership education initiative, more than 100 Blair sophomores tackled group and individual project work designed to help them better understand what they are passionate about and how they can translate that passion into a call to action that benefits others in their communities.
During the 2018-2019 school year, teachers worked with students to identify 10 class service projects that emphasized the program’s key emphasis on Leadership communications, global Engagement, self-Awareness, ethical Decision-making and Service. By the end of the year, sophomores had collectively addressed issues ranging from supporting families of the terminally ill and thanking veterans for their service to cleaning up local parks and spending time with senior citizens at local nursing homes.
“Blair LEADS mixes health, wellness, strength, leadership and service,” said Carolyn Conforti-Browse ’79, Dean of Campus Life and director of Blair leadership programs, who also oversees the LEADS program. “In 10th grade, students focus on discovering what they care about and figuring out how to put what they care about into action.”
Not only did LEADS group and individual service work teach students a great deal about project management and execution, but the weekly class offered the chance to destress in a relaxed environment and brought each LEADS section together as they embraced the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. What follows is a recap of the group projects tackled by each of the 10 LEADS sections.
Senior “Senior Prom”
Mrs. Conforti-Browse’s class planned a 1950s-themed senior prom for 40-plus senior citizens living at United Methodist Communities at Bristol Glen in Newton, New Jersey, and Teddy Zinn ’21 played a central role in the event as MC and DJ, engaging with the residents by asking questions and encouraging them to dance and share their memories.
“The senior prom was meaningful to me because it gave me and my class an opportunity to spread joy to the residents and it was amazing to see them recount their youth and fully smile as we played their favorite old songs,” he said. In planning the prom, Mrs. Conforti’s students saw firsthand the power of the extended Blair family, when they sought and secured the support of Blair’s Board of Trustees Vice Chair Dominick J. Romano '74, P'04 '07 '10, who ensured that his family-owned local ShopRite provided all catering at no charge.
Recognizing Local Veterans
Associate Head of School Ryan Pagotto ’97 and his students chose to honor local veterans and Blair faculty and staff who served in the armed forces at School Meeting on Veterans Day. A panel of faculty veterans sat on stage and engaged in a Q&A with the audience, with the focus being on their pathways to serving the country and what led them to that decision. “It was an illuminating experience for our community as they came to better understand the various motivations for service and how veterans came to serve, through programs such as ROTC,” said Mr. Pagotto. After sharing each panelist’s background, students talked more generally about the history of Veterans Day and how it is celebrated in the United States and the other countries represented in their LEADS class. Sofia Kasparik ’21 ended the presentation by singing the National Anthem as the American flag was raised outside of Armstrong-Hipkins Center for the Arts.
Park Clean Up & Mural Painting
Fine arts teachers Tyson Trish and Evan Thomas’s LEADS class decided they wanted to impact the local community, and noticed that the playground at nearby Footbridge Park was missing equipment. So their class raised money to replace a ladder and a chain rope climbing wall, add trees and mulch to the landscape, and paint a mural of a butterfly designed by Mr. Thomas.
In total, students raised $2,500, planted five dogwood trees and donated funds to the town to secure new playground equipment, thanks to support from Blair Academy, the Blairstown Enhancement Committee and the Kennedy family. “When all of the work was done and my LEADS class could step back and look at all the small things we did that turned into a big accomplishment, it was a great feeling,” said Corrine Wilm ’21, who helped spread mulch and paint the butterfly. “I really enjoyed being able to share this experience with my class because it made it all the better to have a goal and an outcome with them.” In addition to embracing the idea of service, the class learned how to work as a group to tackle a goal and take the steps to make its vision a reality. “LEADS is a great way to learn how to get something worthwhile done,” Corrine said.
Head of School Chris Fortunato and English teacher John Redos ’09 organized the Melanie’s Miles 5K for the third year in a row. The event, which is held in honor of Melanie Humphrey, mother of Tanner ’19 and Logan ’20 who passed away from lung cancer, involved an enormous amount of logistics for the students to tackle: fundraising, advertising, organizing entries, and assembling all race bags for participants. On race day, students helped with registration tables and organizing Blair student and faculty volunteers.
“The whole project was very demanding and took up a significant chunk of the students’ time, but watching their faces when everything came together on the day was amazing,” said Mr. Redos, who also thanks the advancement and head of school office staff for their support. “Students saw that this project was bigger than the scope of Blair and had real impact on people in need. It was a truly powerful experience for all involved.”
Bake Sale & Dance Marathon
English teacher Kaye Evans and Blair chaplain Rev. Lisa Durkee’s class organized a bake sale in support of a dance marathon benefiting Children’s Specialized Hospital of New Jersey in Newark, where the sibling of one LEADS student was receiving care. The class baked cookies, brownies, rice krispie treats and banana bread in their teachers’ apartments during a class block and then sold their goods during lunch in the Romano Dining Hall, raising more than $300. “Raising money toward a good cause is always work that satisfies,” said Hagen Shook ’21. “It was meaningful to the students because it gave us an opportunity to practice our leadership. LEADS gives each individual a platform to achieve something that they are passionate about and there have been so many useful experiences throughout the year that I will carry throughout my life.”
Children’s Playdate & Movie
When Associate Dean of Admission Leucretia Shaw’s class began brainstorming a class project, one student brought up the Blair Academy Learning Center (the on-campus daycare for members of the community). The class quickly began reminiscing about favorite childhood movies and it soon became clear that screening a movie for faculty and staff children would be their choice. As plans developed around the holidays in November, students advertised their afternoon movie as an opportunity for Blair faculty and staff moms and dads to run errands, shop, do chores or just have time to themselves for two hours on a Sunday.
The class voted on a movie (Shrek won!), and finalized the details, such as getting a list of all children on campus, asking that they bring a snack and a blanket, and selecting games to be played before and after the movie. Students advertised by emailing a flyer to faculty and staff members, and divided and conquered on the big day as they entertained the children and enjoyed the movie together. Students were pleased with the impact their work had on some of the community’s smallest members; they received at least one handwritten thank you note from a grateful 5-year-old, who called participating in the festivities “the best day” of his life.
Refurbishing a WWI Memorial
Brian Antonelli ’93’s LEADS class refreshed and rededicated a marble monument to the 21 Blair students and teachers who fought and died in World War I as part of a class project honoring veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. The original memorial, which had previously been refurbished in the 1960s, sits on the hill near the water tower, where the class of 1921 developed a plan to plant a grove of 21 maple trees, one for each fallen soldier, as its senior gift.
The LEADS class’s efforts—along with help from the grounds crew and Blair’s advancement office—no doubt gives the monument more prominence than it has had in the last half-century and students felt strongly about honoring those who gave their lives for our country and creating a tangible reminder of those sacrifices for the Blair community. “Our hope is that the refreshed monument will give our community the opportunity to pause and reflect on the bravery of all Blair alumni who serve in the armed forces,” concluded Mr. Antonelli, who is a veteran himself, having served in the Marine Corps after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1997.
Engaging with Seniors Over Lunch
ACTA advisor Erika Clavel and science teacher Chris Thatcher’s class visited the nearby Knowlton Community Senior Center on Route 94 a handful of times over the course of the 2018-2019 school year. Students served lunch, talked with seniors, built gingerbread houses, played games and made crafts. “Through all of these activities, students and seniors had the chance to engage in conversation and learn different perspectives from another generation,” said Mrs. Clavel.
Trail Maintenance & Fundraising
Dean of Academics Nathan Molteni and language teacher Sharon Merrifield’s class worked with the Ridge and Valley Conservancy on trail maintenance on various properties owned by the group, which they note “has done a tremendous amount to pursue its mission of conserving land and creating opportunities for people to appreciate and enjoy Blairstown’s rural area.”
Not only did the class project expose students to the work going on right in their own backyards, but it also taught them about the challenges that small, local organizations face. “Working on the trail was a different experience for many people in our class,” said Oliver Tipton ‘21. “It was cold outside so the finish was rewarding physically, but it also just felt great to see how much nicer the trail was when walking back through. Despite the temperature, focusing on cleaning and working with great people helped us get through the day.” Later in the year, the class also collectively supported a One Love fundraiser at a girls’ varsity basketball game.
Supporting a Local Food Pantry
Math department chair John Padden and English teacher Tom Parauda’s students focused on food insufficiency in the region, farm gleaning and serving a food pantry as their class project. A handful of students also organized an “International Day” at the local elementary school, during which Blair students from diverse backgrounds talked about their life experiences to more than 60 fifth and sixth graders.