On the bright, sunny morning of June 5th, the Yes We Can Community Center in Westbury, NY was buzzing with excitement, filled with student presenters and their teachers from eleven elementary schools in New York’s Nassau County on Long Island. With the support of the Town of North Hempstead, HEART held the culminating celebration of our 2019 Compassionate Communities Awards program that had reached about 6,000 students in the Valley Stream, Hempstead, Mineola, and Roosevelt school districts. Before the clock struck noon, three schools would be selected as the first, second, and third place cash prize winners of the contest based on presentations that they gave before a panel of judges and an appreciative audience. This year’s program represented an expansion of our successful program pilot during the 2017-18 school year that engaged more than 14,000 Bronx District 8 students from 21 elementary schools in HEART programming and developing service projects to inspire respect, empathy, and social action.
Participating Nassau County schools all gave presentations that showcased their efforts to create a school culture of compassion and respect and to enhance the wider community in which they play such a vital role. They created new programs and projects—or expanded existing programming—that highlight our deep connections to the animals with whom we share our daily lives, and our local and global natural world. Schools implemented innovative programs that highlight their important role in supporting the welfare of companion, wild, and farm animals through school-wide learning experiences, and active, community-based service projects.
Schools engaged in a broad spectrum of endeavors, including: marine wildlife protection and habitat restoration efforts; development of a district-wide recycling program; raising awareness through PSA’s and other media about the need to eliminate single-use plastics in our schools and communities; enhancement of outdoor school spaces in environmentally and wildlife- sensitive ways; expansion of composting efforts in schools; establishment of working relationships with local animal shelters; addressing the needs of local dog and cat populations; promotion of healthier eating through school gardens and expanding our plant-based diets; and protection of our local wildlife habitats to support a more sustainable planet for us all.
An esteemed panel of independent judges—including Legislator Denise Ford from Nassau County District 4; Jed Painter, chief of the Animal Crimes Unit of the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office; Dr. Joseph Famularo, former president and current chair of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents and the current superintendent of the Bellmore School District; Elizabeth Stein, director of Rescue Paw Foundation; and Melissa Gillespie, chair of the Suffolk County Bar’s Animal Law Committee—selected the winning schools. Rescue Paw Foundation provided the $5,000 first prize, $1,000 second prize, and $500 third prize gifts to recognize excellence in, and support further enhancement of, a school-wide approach to nurturing compassion and respect for all living beings.
Every school participating in this contest was impressive, showing that they were leaders in creating more compassionate and sustainable communities, so Rescue Paw made the surprise announcement at the event that every school would be a winner, and the eight other schools that had competed for a prize would each receive $250 toward their humane education efforts. New York State Senator Brooks also provided proclamations to present to each school to recognize their achievements.
Many who attended the event remarked on how inspirational the school presentations were and how urgently students’ efforts to create more compassionate communities are needed at a time when people, animals, and our planet are facing historic social challenges. We are especially pleased that the Compassionate Communities program’s impact will extend well beyond the awards celebration date through the continuation of several projects that students began as program participants, as was the case with last year’s Bronx program. We look forward to staying informed of the excellent work that these students continue carrying out in their schools and neighborhoods. We also plan to bring the Compassionate Communities Awards programs to additional locations during the 2019-2020 school year.
When students connect their academic knowledge to principles of empathy and compassionate action, they have the essential tools they will need to cultivate an inclusive, equitable, and sustainable world.