By John Monfredo, Worcester School Committee
Reaching out and caring about others is what we hope our children will learn in their school years; we want them to grow up to be caring and productive citizens. These are qualities that are not measured by MCAS test scores- they are part of educating the whole child.
During the last few years, fourth grade teacher Donna Quitadamo at Nelson Place Elementary School has been working with her students and parents about reaching out to others. Her class led the way in working with “The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.” This organization was created by Paul Newman and his friends in 1988. The camp is located in the state of Connecticut and has served as a non-profit residential summer camp and year-round center for children coping with cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
The camp houses children between the ages of 7 to 15 who attend one of 9 weeklong sessions. The students experience fun-packed days and develop friendships with children like themselves with very caring adults watching over them. In addition, “The Hole in the Wall Gang Hospital Outreach Program brings the hope and playful spirit of camp to seriously-ill hospitalized children throughout the Northeast region. Twelve full-time hospital outreach specialists make weekly visits to the bedsides of ill children to provide games, crafts, companionship, and comfort to these courageous patients. They also provide a much – needed break for parents and give special attention to siblings. Most importantly, they remind kids, who are physically and emotionally drained by the effects of chemotherapy and long hospital stays of what it’s like to be a kid again.
As part of the character education concept, Ms. Quitadamo encouraged her students to look for heroes in their everyday lives and often shared her heroes with them. Thus one day in the fall of 2008 she shared with the present 6th graders that one of her heroes, Paul Newman, had passed away. She told them about the Newman’s Own Foundation and the “Hole In the Wall Gang” Camp. Then in December of the same year, her students published a classroom newspaper which included persuasive essays written by the students that encouraged people to make donations to the “Hole In the Wall Gang.”
Then, last year one of the present 5th graders at the school brought in a thank you letter from the “Gang”. After reading the above mentioned classroom newsletter his family had decided to send a donation. He shared with his classmates what he knew and felt about the “Gang”. In that same class several students expressed a strong desire to publish some original poems. Thus, Ms. Quitadamo and her children had a classroom discussion and the children suggested that they publish a poetry collection, put it on sale, and donate the profits to the “Hole In the Wall Gang” organization.
Ms. Quitadamo shared this information with parents and thus, a partnership was formed with the “Hole in the Wall Gang” organization. This was one of those moments in teaching where the excitement could be felt by all the students. Ms. Quitadamo acknowledged, “Our publication “Poetic Minds At Work” went on sale in May – because of the generosity of the following people it was pretty much a clear profit: Nelson Place provided the paper, Worcester Technical High School students – printed it for a minimal fee and Deborah Cormier (teacher) and Megan Zarella (Assumption work-study student) helped me with the typing, editing, and Tony Economou (parent) donated all of the binders, plastic coverings and leatherette backings”
The selling and having the students involved in this most worthwhile enterprise took a bit of luck for one of her students; Christian Irene mailed a copy of the poetry collection and a letter to Radio talk host, Jordan Levy of WTAG and asked him to invite Ms. Quitadamo on his show. She appeared on the show with Kathleen Murphy, a Nelson Place student and a “Hole In the Wall Gang” camper, to discuss the book and her weekend visit to “The Hole” with her entire family. Because of the exposure on the Jordan Levy show the contact information was posted on their website. Ms. Quitadamo collected an additional $400 and sent it to the camp in the fall of 2010. This included a $150 donation from the Worcester Police Association who also wanted to support our efforts.
In addition, as a result of the poetry sale, a delegation from Nelson Place was able to deliver four copies of the poetry book and a check for $2,400 to the organization. The delegation included students Christian Irene, Parker and Sabrina Switzer and adults, Gretchen Switzer, Michele Anderson, (Christian’s grandmother), and teacher, Donna Quitadamo.
This school year several teachers and parents who had been involved in the poetry project submitted a proposal to the Nelson Place PTO during the first meeting of the school year. The proposal basically stated that Nelson Place would adopt the camp as their charitable partner and would continue to support it in a variety of ways. The proposal was accepted unanimously!
This past fall, Liz Manning and Kim Babicz, Hospital Outreach Specialists from the camp visited the school to help kick off a year-long collection drive of arts and craft supplies to support this outreach program. They explained to the children how they try to bring the hope and playful spirit of the camp to seriously-ill hospitalized children at UMASS Hospital, right here in Worcester. Every week they provide games, crafts, companionship, and comfort to those children.
The love affair with the camp continues for the students and parents continue to give with their hearts to this great cause. Parents, Tony Economou and Roger West drove their vehicles, loaded with additional supplies collected this year down to Ashford, Ct. The Nelson Place delegation also delivered another $1,600 in cash donations to the camp.
Ms. Quitadamo affirmed, “ Donations have continued to roll in, students are putting items in the drop off box daily, families and local businesses are continuing to send in sizable donations, and the children themselves are finding creative ways to donate money themselves: they’re bringing in their birthday money, allowances they’ve saved, money from the tooth fairy, etc. To date, we have forwarded another $1,200!”
When I asked about future plans, Ms. Quitadamo echoed, “We are planning a used book sale in early June. All proceeds will be donated to the “Hole In the Wall Gang.” The collection box will remain in place until the end of this year at least. Our goal is not only to donate but to spread the word about this magical camp! “The Total monetary donations collected thus far are about $4,600.
So what did the students think about this caring project? The following are quotes from some of the children involved.
“Going to the camp was an amazing experience for me. I visited because of my illness and it is amazing what the volunteers and what Paul Newman did. They make the kids who are sick feel like real kids who can enjoy life. We, as both children and adults, take that for granted.” –Kathleen Murphy (camper, Nelson Place Student)
“When I donate to the camp and other charities, I love seeing the effect on people and their families.” –Christian Irene (Nelson Place Student)
“When I first went to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in December, I was amazed. They have lots of activities for all of the kids. If I was sick, I would want go there.” –Kyle Economou (Nelson Place Student)
“The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp is a wonderful haven for seriously ill children to visit. First, when we drove through the gates I was already in awe because of the beautiful lake, and we had not even started yet! Everything was wonderful, especially the theater and wheelchair accessible tree house. I think it is great what the camp and staff are doing and they should keep on doing it!” –Hannah Foster (Nelson Place Student)
“The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp made me feel happy for the children there. It made me think that for once, those kids will be able to have some fun.” – Parker Switzer (Nelson Place Student)
“The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp was gigantic. We got a tour of the whole place. It had a swimming pool along with cabins that were painted different colors. The place itself I think is a very pretty place with lots of acres.” –Sabrina Switzer (former Nelson Place Student)
“A truly remarkable place; it’s amazing how the friendly staff brightens the kids’ spirits.” Drew Economou (former Nelson Place Student)
Needless to say the project had the enthusiastic support of so many parents. Perhaps parent Sandra Foster summed it up best, “Miss Quitadamo has shown us once again her dedication to all children. Her enthusiasm for helping the Hole in the Wall Camp Gang and her students’ love of poetry has been a wonderful experience for all involved and a great role model!”
Ms. Quitadamo has certainly led her students far beyond the confines of the classroom. She has involved them in giving back to a community of children who greatly appreciated what she and her class have done. She embodies all the qualities of a true educator and caring person.
Congratulations to her and to her past and present fourth grade classes!