By GWEN OREL
The best gift is giving back.
It’s easy to say, and a noble aspiration. But when seen in action, it’s inspiring, too.
Montclair teens have been giving back in multiple ways throughout the holiday season and the strange time of COVID-19.
Whether putting on a show for local charities, like the teens from In Harmony Montclair, or making cards for seniors in nursing homes, like those who take part in Letters for Rose, or marching for a cause, as Montclair High School students did during the Unity march this June (and in other marches, too), or bringing joy to others (and experience to themselves) by performing in a Teen Open Mic Night at Trend Coffee & Tea House, Montclair youth continue to shine light in the darkness.
This holiday season, two more groups of students have stepped up to do good: End the Stigma, which has created gift boxes for people with mental illness, and the Helping Hands Project, which is raising money for the Transgender Law Center.
A PLACE TO BE
It’s a cardboard box filled with stress balls, coloring books, journals. Decks of cards. Confetti. A balloon. Some stickers.
And the box makes people feel better.
The Jared Box Project has been the first undertaking of End the Stigma, a group of about 70 Montclair High School students, primarily sophomores.
End the Stigma is not yet an official club at the high school, so it does not have an official adviser yet. But it does have an official teacher fan base.
The students who formed End the Stigma asked for assistance from their former art teacher, Brienne Kvetkus.
Kvetkus is a fan. “Knowing that students are sitting home and thinking of the well-being of others in the community gives us some hope for the future,” she said.
The Jared Box Project is named for a boy named Jared who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1999. He died in 2000. In 2001, children at Our Lady of Victory School in Pennsylvania began the Jared Box Project, honoring the way Jared carried a backpack full of toys to all his exam rooms and shared them with others.
The idea to work on the Jared Box Project came when a friend received one, said sophomore Justin Comini.
The boxes are given to children in rehabilitation and outpatient centers who are dealing with mental health or terminal illness issues. The project site states that boxes for babies and older kids, 11 through 18, are most needed.
“Even if the reason they’re in the hospital isn’t directly for a mental health problem, just being a kid or being anyone stuck in a hospital, especially right now around the time of the holidays, is hard enough already,” sophomore Cesca Caldarella said.
This past summer, sophomore Maren Shapero and Comini began talking about the stigma around mental health issues. By mid-September, they decided to create a club to help others who might be struggling.
“The main goal was to educate people on how many people struggle, and I think that quarantine brought that out, with everyone being at home a lot,” Shapero said. “Everyone was going through their own stuff. And we thought it would be a good way to create a small community, with just people in our high school, and saying ‘It’s OK not to be OK. It’s OK to have issues.’”
Comini’s mother is a mental health professional. While mental health has always been discussed openly at his house, he’s seen that in some of his friends’ homes, “it’s put secondary to physical health.”
The group holds a meeting every two weeks or so, over Zoom. They check in with one another, asking everyone how they are feeling, and have a second check-in at the end of their meetings.
People might talk about a math test, or balancing school and life in a time when there seems to be no separation.
“I guess we wanted a community, in a time where sometimes it feels like there is no community, because, yeah, it’s ‘your room is your community and my computer is my best friend,’” Comini said.
The Jared Box Project that they planned on Zoom would have been so much nicer in person, if they could have packed the boxes together, Shapero and Comini agreed.
Inside every box is a note that says “We’re in your corner.”
End the Stigma raised money for supplies by selling snacks at concession stands and making an Amazon wish list. Pie boxes were donated from a warehouse in Cedar Grove.
End the Stigma’s goal was to make 100 boxes, which the group did. The boxes were donated to Overlook Medical Center on Dec. 21.
In the spring, Caldarella said, the club will do something else, maybe a clothing drive for a mental health hospital. “We just really want to continue to educate people about mental health,” she said.
Shapero added, “One of our goals for the club is just creating a safe space for kids to talk. Making everyone feel safe and comfortable is our goal.”
Kvetkus said that it is important for other students to know there are “kids who care so much to spend quarantine days putting together a gift to bring happiness to people who are struggling. Especially now, we should be more vocal about how we feel.”
RAISING MONEY FOR GOOD
On a cold day in December, a small group of high school students sold handmade items on Church Street: earrings, hand-painted holiday cards, stickers.
By the end of the day, the group had raised $1,500, and given out many flyers about the Transgender Law Center.
The students were from the Helping Hands Project, founded by MHS senior Lucy Solomon. The law center didn’t know they’d taken on the effort.
“We didn’t know how successful our fundraising efforts were going to be,” Solomon said. “It’s a really, really trying time economically for a lot of people, and we didn’t want to reach out to this organization until we had something to give. And I think we also are looking forward to doing some volunteer work with them, hopefully.”
They hope their next event for the Transgender Law Center will be around Valentine’s Day.
If the name Lucy Solomon sounds familiar, it could be because Maggie Borgen mentions her every time she gives the history of In Harmony Montclair: Solomon co-founded the Imagine Concert, which predated the Harmony Concert, with her when both girls were in sixth grade.
In Harmony Montclair presented its sixth annual concert this past July.
But as the Harmony Concert attracted more and more accomplished musicians, Solomon began looking around for other ways to give back to the community.
She wanted to focus on organizations that would interest students but that were not well known. So she founded the Helping Hands Project her freshman year. The organization, which now has about 30 people, votes on a cause and an organization to support every year. After choosing a cause, they find a solid organization by looking through GuideStar, a resource that rates nonprofit organizations. The Transgender Law Center has earned GuideStar’s highest rating, its platinum seal of transparency.
Black Lives Matter and transgender and LGBTQ+ issues stood out as the ones most important to the group right now.
Black trans people “don’t get the same support systems that the rest of us do. If things were always fair and equal, this wouldn’t be an issue,” Solomon said.
So the Helping Hands Project decided to have a sale to raise money for the Transgender Law Center, an organization that works to create law, policy and attitudes so that people can live authentically, free from discrimination, regardless of gender identity or expression, Solomon said.
By the end of that December day, they had “maybe two pairs of earrings and a few stickers left,” Solomon said with a laugh. “We didn’t know what would happen because it was freezing. But everything was a really big hit. And it was just so heartwarming to see people being generous, at a time like this.”
It was also wonderful to have human interaction with strangers for the first time in a long time, she said. Homemade holiday cards by a member who moved from Colombia two years ago were a big hit.
Solomon hopes to study international relations and work for a nongovernmental organization like Amnesty International or the Transgender Law Center. Using her organizational skills to help others and make a difference is what she has wanted to do since she was 10 years old.
“I think that helping people is the most fulfilling thing ever. And that’s why I want to commit my life to it, because I think there’s really nothing that gives you the same feeling as doing that,” she said.