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Serving the Community

“Ever since the inception of Providence Day School in 1970, community service projects have been as ubiquitous as the ABCs.” ~Donna Gilbert in Providence Day Magazine, Winter 2005

From the beginning, students and families at Providence Day have encouraged giving back to the community in ways that evolved over the years - from Beta to SOS. 

As one of the first clubs at Providence Day, Beta Club began as a service club under the supervision of founding faculty member Clara Ellen Peeler during the 1980-81 school year. Member selection criteria included character, leadership, scholarship, extracurricular activities, and maintaining an overall grade point average of 85. This group took part in a variety of service projects that served Providence Day and the greater community from the first year, starting with doughnut sales, trash pickup, planning Upper School dances, as well as residential visits at the Hospitality Care Center. In subsequent years, they continued taking part in multiple efforts as fundraisers and to provide campus beautification and support, in addition to nursing home visits.

Three years later, Key Club became a new service club on campus for male students in grades 10-12 with similar requirements to Beta Club. Founding athletic coach Gil Murdock served as the first advisor, and the club followed the motto “Caring – Our Way of Life.” Service projects included an annual Azalea Sale, Jump Rope for Heart, and supporting the Red Cross Bloodmobile. Other projects included the Student Government Association-sponsored Cash and Can Drive and cutting wood for needy families. 

During the same 1983-84 school year, the Monogram Club, open to members with at least two varsity sports letters, focused on service projects around the school and the community. At this time, the Girls Athletic Association was the equivalent club for female students earning two letters in a varsity sport and sponsored or co-sponsored school events with other clubs.

By the late 1980s, the Girls Athletic Association and Boys Monogram Club had combined, but there was still no Key Club equivalent for female students. The “Keyettes” was formed and tasked with clean-up and school upkeep projects, visits to nursing homes and daycare facilities, as well as special fundraising drives such as a daffodil sale. This group of students stayed busy with projects year-round like Samaritan’s Purse, volunteering at the chilly Charlotte Observer Marathon held each January, the Thompson Children’s Home in Matthews, and consignment sales at PD neighbor Sardis Presbyterian Church. 

“Kids liked it because they could walk across the parking lot and it was good for freshman who didn’t drive yet,” says Roberta McKaig, PD Latin teacher for over 45 years, who served as a long-standing advisor for the Keyettes over multiple decades. “They were really a force in the community.” 

Out of all of the projects, McKaig recalls having the most fun at nursing homes. “We brought cookies and the girls sang songs from when residents were teenagers like ‘Let me call you Sweetheart’ and ‘Daisy, Daisy’ which made residents happy. At another nursing home the girls wore prom dresses and did a fashion show,” she recalls. “We folded paper to make flower pots with artificial flowers in them, took them to the nursing homes, and let residents choose one as a door decoration. It really helped because they could remember, ‘Mine is the room with the violet.’” 

Ben Topham, a leader at the school for 37 years as a science teacher, tennis coach, college guidance counselor, Upper School administrator, and Assistant Head of School, played an integral role in defining social responsibility at Providence Day. “I think that in the very beginning there were things that communicated school service to the community and social responsibility,” Topham says. However, for the first 15-16 years, there were, “different classes and groups taking on different things they wanted to do but there wasn’t an intent to make it part of the school mission.”

That all changed when Gene Bratek became Head of School in 1986. According to Topham, Bratek felt that “The mission statement is too long. Nobody will remember it or repeat it and it’s not really clear who we are.” Within a year, a committee including Topham and Bratek developed the current mission statement which exists to this day: “Providence Day School exists to inspire in its students a passion for learning, a commitment to personal integrity, and a sense of social responsibility.” From there, the team established core values including several focused on social responsibility and helping others. By 1987, the mission statement and guiding principles were visibly featured on posters throughout the divisions and in Extended Day classrooms.

The curriculum and class trips also started taking on a component of social responsibility. When the senior class took a trip to Cape Cod, students removed trash from beaches or cleaned out a cranberry bog for better growth. For years, students took trips to the Florida Everglades and the Florida Keys focusing on ecology and taking care of the environment while learning about marine biology. 

“I think the activities are not necessarily unique to PD but at other schools, they don’t do it with the intent that we do,” says Topham. “Eric Hedinger (current Head of Upper School) worked with me and has carried on this program. Any time we plan things like a class trip, we ask ‘how are we helping others?’ ‘How are we helping our kids to be more socially responsible?’ A lot of schools just come up with an idea and do it, but we do it with intent, it’s part of our mission statement. Gene Bratek would ask for yearly evaluations and a periodic assessment of how good a job we were doing.”

Once the mission statement was developed, there was a clear opportunity to create a unified focus. As Topham recalls, “At one point there were 17 different activities going on with a total student body of 300 at that time – we had over 200 students with different focuses.”

Things really started to change in 2001 when Topham tasked English teacher Ian Kutner with taking over Beta Club. “It was my second year, and at the time Beta Club was the only forum in the Upper School to do social responsibility work,” says Kutner. “Right away I was struck by the fact that as a community, for a school whose one part of the trifecta of the mission is social responsibility, it didn’t seem like we were really living the mission. We are a family, we are kind to one another, that had been instilled all along, but we were really not dealing with that one-third of the mission.” 

To determine the future of social responsibility, Kutner formed a team with five student leaders from Beta Club and five faculty members. “We sat together in my office for a week trying to determine what we wanted kids to get out of social responsibility,” Kutner recalls. “We wanted to create something where kids could dive deeply into one thing and commit themselves to this project month after month and year after year to have a deep, meaningful relationship with some aspect of the community.” 

At first, teachers designed projects with student input, but students eventually ran the projects. The goal was to coach students into becoming community leaders. “The vision for Social Responsibility that we now have is a collaboration of administrators, faculty, and students, but more than anything it was students. What’s cool and amazing about how we became who we are is that we are really willing to change. That kind of transformation just doesn’t happen at any institution. There is something special about us that we are willing to take really good risks educationally and it takes courage to live our school’s mission.”

At that time, Beta Club was the only service club doing activities outside of the school, and Key Club under the leadership of Lee Taylor was more school-focused. The GPA requirement for Beta Club was dropped and it became what is now known as Students of Service (SOS). “We thought the reward would be the service, not recognition or certificates. It was our mission to do social responsibility; that was the reward,” says Kutner. Instead of having 20 members, the group grew to have 200 participating students. Almost 100 people were inducted a year once the GPA requirement was removed. 

At first, SOS was only open to grades 11 and 12, but many students had a desire to start earlier and both Kutner and Topham agreed. Once ninth graders began to participate, SOS meetings grew to include the whole Upper School. “What I love is that it was not because of college resume-building, it was doing good, living our mission. We do a lot more work on looking at our community and needs deliberately education-wise, but the only way for students to get what’s happening in the community is to do outreach work.”

The partnership with Freedom School, now led by PD teacher Katie Carmichael, is another social responsibility initiative that Kutner helped bring to Providence Day in 2011 with support from Nicole DuFauchar, then the PD Director of Multicultural Affairs. The Freedom School program brings 55 elementary-aged scholars from neighboring Rama Road Elementary to the PD campus each summer to help combat summer learning loss and utilizes volunteers from the Upper School, parents, and faculty and staff. 

Determining details about space usage, funding, and faculty oversight were complicated for such a huge initiative, but Kutner – along with many others at PD – thought it could be really good for our community and was an extension of the existing Big Brothers Big Sisters partnership with Rama Road Elementary. Each year, the support from the Providence Day community grows with supply drives and donations that shave thousands of dollars off of the Freedom School budget.

Saundra Robbins was the first Freedom School site coordinator at Providence Day and has taught at the school since 1990. Her children were “lifers” at PD and one of her grandchildren is a student now. Robbins was looking into volunteering for Freedom School at a different site when she found out it was going to happen on the Providence Day campus.

 “I just had this yearning to give back to my community and I was introduced to Freedom School Partners from a friend of mine. Lo and behold, Nicole sent out an email asking if anyone wanted to be a site coordinator for this program. They wanted someone who was a PD teacher, for me with the school and community, knowing the ins and outs of the school – this meant I didn’t have to commute across town to do this. We were bringing the kids on campus! I remember that day so vividly, we just laughed and cried, it was awesome,” says Robbins. “Freedom School gives the scholars and families opportunities that encourage and let them know that they have what it takes to be successful at anything they do. There are other reading/literacy programs but it’s more to it – those connections – it is just great to be part of something that helps these young families and the kids to grow so they can do more.”

The program is now led by Katie Carmichael and continues to set records with its annual school supply drives.

Today, social responsibility is part of the curriculum in all three divisions. The Community Engagement Coordinator positions were created four years ago with a title that accurately reflects PD’s current definition of social responsibility: to cultivate a sense of connection to our community and the world and to take action to improve the lives of others. 

In Lower School, the programming encompasses the themes of exploration, reflection, and gratitude. In addition, there is a significant emphasis on character education. In Middle School, the themes are empathy, participation, and reflection. In Upper School, the emphasis is on investigation, innovation, and reflection. The Community Engagement Coordinators collaborate to provide a continuum that begins with student-centered exploration and ultimately develops into student-driven initiatives and partnerships that reflect students’ authentic interests and passions for supporting local and global initiatives and organizations. The Community Engagement Coordinators are Erica Katz in the Lower School, Edwin Gil and Sarah Goodman in the Middle School, and Jennifer Bratyanski in the Upper School.

The SOS program in the Upper School continues to evolve and grow. “I love where we are now with the goal of building deep roots and our kids volunteering outside the community for a long time and having a connection. With faculty committed for years, like Clint Crumley who has been involved for 20 years, it’s become part of the fabric of who our faculty are as well,” Kutner says. “What I love is that social responsibility was a community vision, and a lot of folks helped make it happen. We are still evolving. That’s what makes us an exceptional school, for as much as we’ve got, we know we can do better.”  

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