George Jr. Republic students launch ‘Mission of Gratitude’


A campus-wide “Mission of Gratitude” initiative has been underway on the campus of The William George Agency for Children’s Services (WGA) and the George Junior Republic Union Free School District, according to a recent press release.

“As the COVID-19 crisis continues to create a significant disruption to our daily lives, the remarkable staff within various departments on our campus continue to support the emotional and physical well-being of our youth and staff in extraordinary ways,” WGA Executive Director Helen Hulings said in the release.

The school district currently has over 150 students on its campus, spread out over 18 different cottage buildings, all of which have been entirely self-contained for nearly two months in the interest of preventing the spread of a potential COVID-19 case on campus, Hulings said.

Despite the challenging circumstances, student residents approached this time as an opportunity to apply their creative skills, creating hundreds of signs of appreciation for each department as a thank-you for their contributions during the pandemic.

“It’s reinforced that what you’re doing makes a difference,” said Sonia Apker, superintendent of the school district. “It has value. It’s respected work. … Our current circumstances are certainly unprecedented and overwhelming. And [with] just that simple note, somebody recognizes the person’s value, and it’s important to them.”

The woman behind the initiative was WGA Independent Living Skills Supervisor Valerie Nitti, and her coordinators organized and implemented this initiative on the students’ behalf by collecting and disseminating the signs, along with several other decorations and surprises. The delivery was typically during the late evening or very early morning hours to ensure the surprise of each department and over 400 hundred staff members, Hulings said.

The idea behind the Mission of Gratitude was sparked by the well-known “Pay It Forward” initiatives, Nitti explained, as well as a growing desire to show gratitude toward WGA and district staff.

“It’s really hard to remember because somebody was having a conversation about just how much our whole entire work community had to change and adapt to what was happening,” Nitti said. “And people just needed kind of an uplift. Morale was just not great.”

As Nitti alluded to, the program helped to spread encouragement in what has otherwise been a challenging time for the campus. Apker said the school district has pushed its educational programming into the residential units, requiring teachers to get creative.

“They’re packing up and moving out to the units every day to try to have some semblance of school and deliver education remotely away from some of the resources that exist in the building,” she said. “It’s a stretch. We have teachers teaching multiple subjects, so they have to partner with content-area teachers back in the building.”

To help accommodate the teachers’ needs, the district initiated a common prep period at the start of each day, giving teachers the opportunity to collaborate if needed, but there are still concerns.

Teachers, unlike the students, aren’t isolated to the cottages, so traveling from home to work every day presents many health risks. That challenge hasn’t gone unnoticed, Apker said.

“I am extremely grateful to our dedicated staff of both the school and the residential side that has sacrificed tremendously to come in every single day when they know the risk of contracting the virus and putting their own families at risk,” Apker said. “They are so dedicated to our children that they showed up every day, and I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for their dedication.”

On the residential side, Hulings said the biggest challenge has been keeping all 18 cottages completely quarantined and self-contained for two months, a decision that has had a drastic effect on students.

“It’s been challenging for them and for us,” Hulings said. “I think everyone just in normal circumstances out in the greater community feel the quarantine and the challenges of that, but for these kids, even more so because they’re just self-contained with the same individuals 24 hours a day.”

Everything from education to food services are being delivered to the cottages, though the children do get to enjoy outside recreation within each cottage.

That isolation is largely what sparked the Mission of Gratitude in the first place, Nitti explained.

“In our work community, we’re all always interchanging with one another and having contact with one another. And through this, we kind of all had to be in our own little worlds,” she said. “Somebody said something about it and it was like, how about some random acts of kindness towards one another, and we can do it in a way that we still meet these guidelines and we can individualize everything.”

The hard work paid off, as many staff at WGA and the district shared their appreciation for the gifts and notes.

“On behalf of the Recreation Department: The Gratitude Mission was amazing and thoughtful,” said Laurene Payton, director of recreation and campus activities at WGA. “Walking into work, we felt appreciated and loved. It really brightened up our day.”

Apker echoed that sentiment, adding that it means a lot for everyone on campus.

“Walking into the school last Wednesday morning and seeing all of the wonderful decorations and student-created posters of encouragement and thanks meant more than you could possibly imagine,” Apker said. “Knowing that our students appreciate us and value the work that is being done to support them was an incredible lift. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and an extra thank-you for the delicious goodies.”

Nitti said while the program started with food service staff, it quickly spread to other departments, and now, more staff have joined in on the efforts. Soon, staff are hoping to show their gratitude toward the students through activities like making T-shirts.

Through all of these challenges and changes, Hulings and Apker said they’ve seen nothing but cooperation from the students.

“[Students are] incredibly mature about the process,” Apker said. “It’s pretty meaningful.”

Hulings shared a similar sentiment.

“[Students] have been fantastic,” Hulings said. “They also are very appreciative. … They really understand the gravity of the situation and they appreciate that we’re trying to keep them safe.”

As the county reopens, Apker, Hulings and others are working to figure out what their new normal will look like. As Apker explained, there are a lot of factors to consider.

“We’re interacting with 55 different counties,” she said. “What will it be like when children have some access to be traveling to visit with their families again, and how do we keep the rest of the campus safe when children are going back to these communities and then returning to campus? So, that’s going to be a challenge.”

Apker said she anticipates increasing operations slowly and in stages, constantly monitoring the safety and success of reintegration and relying on their “robust” medical clinic.

“We rely heavily on the advice of our medical doctors on how to best keep the children in campus safe,” she said. “So, we’ll be relying on them just as heavily as we begin to reopen and go into phase one for us.”

In the meantime, Nitti is proud of the way both staff and students have been able to not only weather this crisis but also become stronger through it.

“We really miss being able to be together, but it’s also brought us closer together,” she said. “We’ve learned a lot about each other and what we do and how important we are to one another. So, I just think it’s that silver lining and this thing that is happening to everyone.”


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