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Students Rise Together To Give Back



From the Times Union

Students in the grade 3-4 class at Susan Odell Taylor School may be short in stature, but they're big in heart.

The lower school classroom came together last month for a packing party, the culmination of a fundraiser that began last year to benefit the nonprofit Together We Rise organization.

They decorated sweet cases — duffel bags filled with supplies like hygiene kits, coloring books, teddy bears and blankets for foster children entering the system — and delivered them to Berkshire Farm Center & Services for Youth.

In attendance was a special guest — fifth-grader Jay Ross-Szczypinski, a former Taylor School student who recently moved with his family to Pittsburgh, Pa. Jay was adopted after entering the foster care system through Berkshire Farm, and it was his idea to help kids in a similar situation.

"We raised $600, which was put toward the purchase of 23 sweet cases filled with everything a child may need if placed in emergency foster care," said Suzanne Clarkson, Lower School director at the Susan Odell Taylor School. "It really came full circle for Jay, because he hand-delivered the packages to Berkshire Farm Center."

Founded in 2008 by Danny Mendoza, Together We Rise is a nationwide nonprofit that aims to help youth navigate through the foster care system by providing resources, learning activities and support.

The group collaborates with community partners across the country to allocate resources for youth in foster care and develop service-learning activities to educate volunteers about the system.

Working with foster agencies, social workers, court appointed special advocates and other partners to expand its programming, the nonprofit continues to provide sweet cases to thousands of foster youth each year, so they don't have to travel with their belongings in a trash bag. New bicycles and college supplies are also distributed.

"The kids were really excited and came up with the idea of a coin drop to raise money and made inspirational cards and pictures, which they tucked away inside the sweet cases," Clarkson said. "Part of our mission is to develop a big service learning project for students each year, and our focus is to provide an education where students learn to be productive citizens."

The Susan Odell Taylor School recently expanded with the addition of grades seven and eight.

The expansion hasn't changed the vibe at the small private school, which serves about 100 students in preschool through eighth grade at 116 Pinewoods Ave.

This school year, students approached teachers about helping people affected by hurricanes, specifically residents of Puerto Rico.

An employee at the school is a native of the U.S. commonwealth. She has family there and previously worked at a school that was completely destroyed by Hurricane Maria, which was the first Category 4 storm to strike the island directly since 1932.

Students in the 3-4 class are working on a service project to help a schools on the island struggling to recover after the storm.

"The kids are all in, I think because we empower them," Clarkson said. "We provide guidance but give them the reins, and it's really the students who manage the projects from beginning to end."

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