For the fifth grade students at Riker Hill Elementary School in Livingston, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was not just any other day off from school, but a day of reflection and service.
As stated on the school website the King Holiday and Service Act was passed in the U.S. Congress to designate Martin Luther King’s birthday as “The King Day of Service [which] breaks down barriers and brings people together who might not ordinarily meet to help out in communities.”
Anna Maria Corino, a fifth grade teacher at Riker Hill Elementary since 2005, led the in-class campaign. The name of the student project was the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service Activity and was posed to the students in Corino’s class in Dec.
“A parent volunteer on the Community Relations committee for Riker Hill approached me [about the project],” Corino explains and together, along with some consultation from the school’s media specialist and guidance counselor, they made a plan for the students to make their day off of school a meaningful reflection on a personal act of service.
Corino explains that she arranged for a guest speaker, Lou Percaro, to talk with the students about Foster Care. Percaro has “fostered many children and had a lot to share with the students. They loved it!” Corino said.
A flyer was sent home to parents explaining the project of assembling what is called a First Knight Kit. Students were then prepared with their collected supplies to make the kits on Jan. 13 in class.
The Fist Knight Kit is a small bag of hygienic supplies that includes items that a child would need when spending their first night at a foster home. Items that Corino’s class collected included toothbrushes, toothpaste, body wash, shampoo, tissues, hand sanitizers and new pairs of socks. All hygiene items were in “travel” sizes to get children started at their new home with a bag that was easily transported along with their other belongings.
Each kit was combined into a plastic bag to include one of each collected item, resembling what any person might bring for an overnight trip when traveling to a new place. The students in Corino’s class worked together on Jan. 13 to assemble the kits during their Social Studies session of the day.
“In Social Studies, we frequently discuss being a part of a community and the meaning of citizenship,” Corino said and what better way for children to comprehend being a part of a larger community and world than by working together to help a child, who may very well be much like themselves in so many ways, but missing some of the most basic life necessities.
In addition to the collection of hygiene items, students also wrote a small note or a kind phrase and picture to be added to their assembled bag, letting the child receiving the bag know that there was a child out there thinking about them and wishing them luck in their new home.
The First Knight Kits were then donated to Jersey Cares, a non-profit group that will distribute the kits to foster care children in need. A parent volunteer delivered the completed kits to the Livingston chapter of Jersey Cares. The students collected and created 75 First Knight Kits. Additional socks and hygiene items that had been collected were also brought to the Jersey Cares center.
Following the project, on Jan. 14, students were instructed by Corino to do a piece of reflective writing about what they learned from taking part in the project as well as how they felt after participating.
Many students across the U.S. would have been learning that week about Martin Luther King Jr. and his contributions and sacrifices, but taking part in an activity of community service took the understanding of this day a step further. Giving back to the community allows children an opportunity to reflect on what exactly it means to reach out to someone who is different.
Corino scheduled the project to take place as close the holiday as possible, MLK Jr. Day this year falling on Jan. 18. The service project, bookended with the guest speaker on Tues., Jan 12 and the children’s written reflection on Thurs., Jan. 14 sent children into their three day weekend with something wonderful to reflect upon.
The project assisted students in understanding the importance of volunteering and opened their eyes to a way of life different from what they are accustomed to.
“Naturally, children are absorbed in their own life and accustomed to what they have,” Corino explains. “They may not realize that there are others who are not as fortunate as they are.”
MLK Jr. Day will always be a national holiday of intense reflection of how far this nation has come and the steps that still need to be taken toward equality and justice. Certainly the children at Riker Hill have found an excellent way to express their gratitude to their fellow classmates and community, one that will inspire the imagination of anyone brave enough to have a dream.