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Middle School Teens are "paying it forward"

By Erin O'Connor

Staff Writer

WESTFIELD - At the North Middle School on April 10 students gathered in a brightly lit class room to discuss a recent endeavor that has been giving them continuous praise and reaction from others in their community.

Last fall health teacher, Patricia Mahoney, started 17 of her health students on a project that she had seen done on the "Oprah Winfrey Show." In place of Winfrey's usual gifts to her audience members she stuck $100 under each audience member's chair and asked them to go out and "pay it forward" with the money. "Paying it forward" means repaying the good deeds one has received by doing good things for other people. Mahoney was inspired and decided to try this process in her own classroom.

"Health class is not just about telling kids not to do drugs," Mahoney said.

A student, Evonne A.C. Tapases, asked her father to talk to a family friend, James Hagan of Westfield Bank, about the project. Hagan contributed $1,600 from the bank to the class project. Mahoney then divided her class into teams, giving them each a sum of money, and watched as ideas were hatched and progress was made.

"They are excellent group of kids," Mahoney said. "They have high energy and they are an outgoing personality type."

Project Art Therapy

Student Kaela F. Saltmarsh, said at first she was not quite sure what she wanted to do for her project.

"My father works for the Rotary Club and the Carson Center so I asked him if any group needs money," she said.

Saltmarsh then got involved with the art therapy group at the Carson Center by donating her $100 and also collecting an additional $320 for the therapy group from family and friends.

"I went and met all the kids," Saltmarsh said. "They constructed a city with houses, farms and zoos."

Tapases and the five girls

Tapases' group had more to spend because there were six of them in all. They took $300 and donated it to a family in Westfield in which the mother has ten children and one more on the way.

"They did not have a lot of money," Tapases said. "The kids did not get a lot for Christmas so we went to Wal-Mart and bought toys. We went to Big Y and got a certificate and collected shoes and soaps from the school."

The girls took the other $300 from their group and donated it to Brightside for families for "Bill Nye the Science Guy" videos.

"They were so appreciative and they made us lunch," Tapases said about the Brightside children.

Representatives from Disney were impressed by what the North Middle School Students were doing and they contributed an extra CD to the order. The students at Brightside also started community and international outreach programs to "pay it forward."

"People think that we are so young and that we can't help people but we can make a difference by helping people," Tapases said.

The Gray House

A seven year-old boy who goes by the name of Matt has been the recipient of many gifts as part of the "Pay it forward" project. Lee A. Papadimitriou and a classmate purchased the member of the Gray House, in Springfield, a Red Sox Baseball ticket and that is not all.

"We got him a Red Sox ticket and called Fenway and they are going to put his name on the board," Papadimitriou said. According to Papadimitriou a teacher at the school got better tickets and Matt now has a box seat.

Peter Pan Bus Lines also donated a bus trip that will bring Matt to the game.

"We have been contacting him every two weeks," Papadimitriou said. "We called to see who his favorite player is so we can get him a jersey."

Papadimitriou said the idea of visiting the Gray House, a small neighborhood human service agency, just popped into his head.

"I feel really good," he said.

Southwick Animal Shelter

Catherine D. Fenwick and Noor A. Boulas "paid it forward' by going to the Southwick Animal Shelter and giving the women there a bunch of supplies that she was in need of.

Boulas said she appreciated the project, " because it is not out of a book it is out of our own minds."

"They got in front of the City Council and had to articulate [the plan] themselves," Mahoney said. "They continue to build their confidence level. The way that they are speaking is elevated. I can see them being the next leaders."

Mahoney is speaking about a March 15, City Council meeting in which each student of the health class was recognized and given citations by the City Council congratulating them on their work in the "Pay it Forward" project.

What Ally did

"At first I knew that I wanted to do it [Pay it Forward] but I didn't know what," Allison M. Sitler said.

Sitler ended up using her money to pay for the driving education of a student, Chelsea, whose family was facing hardship.

Chelsea's uncle had passed, her father was suffering brain injury due to a motorcycle accident, and her mother was dying of cancer.

Chelsea need to have her license because her mother needed a ride to go for her chemotherapy appointments but she did not have the $500 needed to pay the fees.

Sitler came through by using the money from Westfield Bank and then raising funds on her own to pay for Chelsea's fees.

One-woman saw the movie "Pay it Forward" and this motivated her to donate to the cause, Sitler said.

Chelsea came in Mahoney's health class shortly after receiving the funds to speak with students about her life.

"I thought that she had a lot of courage to come in," Sitler said. "I don't know if I would be able to do that and she probably thought that I wouldn't try to do anything to help her."

Donating to the MSPCA

Nicole D. Modlish and Tori L. Sullivan took their $200 and donated it to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA).

"We asked for a wish list of the most important things needed and we took the money and bought the supplies," Modlish said.

"We are both animal lovers and it was the first thing that jumped in our heads," Sullivan said.

The students of North Middle School were nominated for the 2007 Young Philanthropist Award of Greater Boston. The winner will be announced at the annual luncheon May 1 at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge.

"It is so rewarding to see the faces that we are helping. We are big people inside," Tapases said.

"There is a light on in all of us," Mahoney said. "Sometimes the light goes dim when we use alcohol and drugs. Each of your energy became brighter from this experience," she added. "A lot of people don't want to teach in middle school but you can take their energy and harness it."

Mahoney said that she would like to do another "Pay it Forward" project soon.

"All these kids are now capable of doing and running their own programs for themselves," she said.