During the last recess on any given Tuesday afternoon, a group of Cherry Creek Elementary students are hard at work planning ways to impact the school, community and the world.
And if you think that’s overstating what they do, you haven’t met the members of Early Act.
On a recent Tuesday, nearly 40 fourth- and fifth-graders sat at round tables in a former classroom and brainstormed projects. Nothing was off the table.
For potential school projects, one student suggested raising funds for a microwave oven for students to use. Another floated the idea of students doing chores around the building to help the school save money. A third suggested selling popcorn and cookies at community events.
“Our goal is to have one solid thing we can do in each of the three areas,” Joseph Audia told students. Audia leads the group with fellow fourth grade teacher Jill Connor.
“Every one of you are here because you care about your school, your community and your world,” Audia told students. “While we have certain things we can and can’t do, you have a say in choosing what we do and how we go about it.”
Kenzie Rubel reported on an earlier project to make cards for a classmate recently diagnosed with cancer. “She’s going into 19 weeks of chemo,” Kenzie shared. “Maybe there’s more we can do to lift her spirits.”
Early Act at Cherry Creek formed in 2011, Audia said, when he had his fourth graders do a project-based learning activity related to the aftermath of an earthquake in Haiti. Murray Lake and Alto Elementary schools also have Early Act groups, the elementary version of Interact groups at the middle and high school.
“My students became so passionate about helping Haiti that I changed the way I was teaching around that,” Audia said. “It was so powerful I said, I need to harness that. Now we always have several irons in the fire.”
The Cherry Creek group currently is partnering with Lowell Rotary to supply water filters to countries that need them, organizing a paper recycling program and promoting a “share kindness” sticky note campaign at school/ They are also learning about extreme poverty globally and doing something about it through microfinancing — and setting up its fundraising store with student-made products.
Since 2013, Cherry Creek students have made 669 loans totalling some $17,000 to entrepreneurs in countries such as Rwanda, Guatemala, Lebanon, Ecuador and India, in areas that include farming, retail, higher education and construction.
Cherry Creek, Alto and Murray Lake elementaries also recently wrapped up World Polio Day awareness activities — called purple pinkie day in the schools — that align with Rotary International’s efforts to eliminate the disease. The district’s schools have partnered with Lowell Rotary for years, Audia said.
Connor said Early Act attracts a variety of personalities. “The one thing they all have in common is a heart for service. Beyond that, we get all kinds,” she said. “We’ve had students in our group who literally didn’t speak a word to anyone at school but were able to find a place in our group, helping people in their own way.
“We’ve also had students who typically present with behavior challenges at school who are also able to find a positive purpose in Early Act… Members are leaders in the building, and other students look to them as an example.”
Early Act, In Retrospect
Lowell High senior Nolan Smith was in Audia’s Cherry Creek classroom when the Haiti earthquake and subsequent fundraising began.
“I just remember that feeling of connectedness with other people around the world at such a young age, and how big of an impact it had on me,” he recalled. “I never thought about it that way before, but, looking back now, I’m sure that contributed to my passion for connecting to others in need.
It also helped him understand how connected human beings are, he said. Nolan joined Interact, the middle and high school versions of the group, midway through freshman year. He’s currently president of the group, and is most drawn to projects with an international element, the direction he’s leaning after high school. Or the Peace Corps, even.
To those in or interested in the Early Act club, Nolan would tell them: “embrace this opportunity to get involved in leadership opportunities at such a young age… This will help you find a passion in the future and lead people with similar interests as you to a common goal.
“That’s leadership: leading others to make an impact. Interact and Early Act are phenomenal first steps to becoming a great leader and making an impact on the world.”