Palmyra Middle School might be closed for remote learning, but its National Junior Honor Society (NJHS) is still learning invaluable lessons about the importance of community.
Inspired by recent personal loss, the school’s NJHS president and eighth grader Maura Russell rallied her fellow honor society members to make cards for hospital patients isolated from visitors and loved ones.
“My aunt passed away from bilateral pneumonia, and then my uncle got it too,” Russell said. “He was grieving and really upset. We couldn’t see him, because at the time, they weren’t sure if he had corona(virus) or not. He couldn’t see anybody; all he got was a few phone calls.”
Russell couldn’t stand not physically being there for an uncle in need. That frustration was compounded by the isolation affecting his well-being, which ultimately moved Russell to do whatever she could to minimize the same pain so many others were navigating.
“It hurt my heart so much that we couldn’t help him,” she recalled. “I decided I wanted to do something for other people who are going through similar events, so I emailed my teacher and she told me that we could do it and that I could take care of it. So I told the other members and it went from there.”
NJHS advisor Terry Wallace, who’s taught at the middle school for 45 years and was recently named Teacher of the Year, said empowering her students to discover their own abilities and leadership potential is her goal as an educator. So when Russell approached her with the idea of sending cards to patients at different Jefferson hospitals throughout New Jersey, Wallace recognized the opportunity to let the student fly.
“Maura wrote to me asking if we could do this because of her aunt and uncle, and I said yes, but it’s your ball, so run with it,” Wallace noted. “I believe they find themselves through empowerment, by seeing that they can make a difference even though they’re in middle school.”
And Russell wasted no time taking the reins of the project.
“I told everyone, hey, make 10 cards by Wednesday, I’ll come pick them up and mail them from my house,” she said. She was quick to mail out the 70 handmade cards, which featured drawings, encouraging messages and well wishes meant to make their recipients feel less alone in a difficult time.
And while Russell isn’t sure if the cards have reached their destinations yet, she is encouraging more of her classmates to join the effort in helping people they haven’t even met feel the warmth of a community.
“I’m also president of the junior student council, and so I told everybody there that they (can) make cards and that they can drop them off at my house, since there’s so many more people in student council,” Russell explained.
“Once I have them, then we’ll send out another batch of cards.”
Wallace said the eighth grader’s idea filled the void for an NJHS program that was poised to launch before the school shifted to remote learning. The card-making campaign still helped the seven NHJS members connect with their community and unite in a common cause while empowering student leaders — and she couldn’t be more proud of them.
“They did what I was hoping they would: They found their passion and a cause worth taking on,” Wallace said. “They all had it in them once the opportunity presented itself.
“No one wanted this to happen but it’s here and they’re dealing with it.”
Russell said she and her classmates feel the emotional effects of daily COVID-19 updates on rising confirmed cases and deaths, and are eager to provide a little bit of good news.
“It’s so sad because it’s all they talk about on the news, the deaths, how many people have it, how the numbers keep increasing, she said. “My classmates thought this was a good idea because they just want to help.”
She hopes the project brings some light to those who need it.
“This is so difficult for everybody; this is different than anything anyone’s ever experienced,” Russell said. “It makes me feel good to do this because I want to change what’s going on or to make someone smile.”
Wallace wasn’t surprised her NJHS students rose to the occasion.
“They’re not looking for anything other than showing compassion,” she said. “They want people to know they’re here to make a difference. They’re learning that they don’t always need an adult to answer the call for help.”
And Russell said that one of the predominant lessons she’s already gleaned from her project and the efforts of her peers is exactly what her NJHS advisor wanted her to find out for herself: that they can make a difference, and that community service is an ongoing action.
“I’ve learned that if you put your mind to it, you can do it,” the student said. “I’m not sure yet what we’ll do next but I want to keep this going. I don’t want to stop it now.”