For many high school seniors, prom, graduation, and other celebratory gatherings are the pinnacle of four years of hard work. But, for the class of 2020 those milestones won’t be happening.
That didn’t sit well for Amanda Jones, a local musician and music teacher who has three boys in the East Hampton school district. Her son, Micah, is a senior this year, so to help bring a little joy to an unprecedented end of the school year she launched the “Adopt a Bonacker Senior Student” campaign.
The idea was inspired by a similar initiative her niece Daisy, who lives in Pennsylvania, is taking part in. However, since students’ parents had to ask for the student to be “adopted,” Jones decided to make the East Hampton efforts more inclusive to make sure every student felt appreciated.
“I kind of just shelved that in the back of my brain. A couple weeks later, I’m sitting here thinking about everything that my own kid is missing out on – the senior banquet award ceremonies, all the end of the year stuff,” Jones noted. “It’s your senior year, it’s the end of 13 years of being in school and how we needed to do something.”
So she reached out to Adam Fine, East Hampton High School Principal, who gave the okay. “My idea was to take it a step further. With my sister’s program, they had to post it on Facebook, the parent had to post it on Facebook,” she explained. “I just knew that that would eliminate some students from the senior class for a variety of reasons. I know some of the senior parents aren’t even on Facebook. So I wanted to include everybody in the senior class. I thought this is going to be a big undertaking, but I got Adam’s approval. I work for the district, not full-time or anything, but I do accompany the choir on the piano. I’m also the vocal director for the JMMES and Middle School musicals.”
That got the ball rolling, and then Jones reached out to Tonya Gregg, a class advisor. “She’s been so great and she helped me get all the names. We set up a spreadsheet and then we just started. About halfway through the week, I realized it was way too much for me to do by myself,” Jones relayed. “I put out the call and Becky Guidi, who’s a teacher at the High School, she’s a friend of mine, she said, ‘I’ll help you.’ And then she jumped in and it was like a godsend. Between the two of us, we put it out there – who would like to ‘adopt’ a senior?”
The response from the community was overwhelming. “If they knew a senior specifically, they could reach out to us and ask if that person was available. Or if it was a parent that posted about the student, it kind of worked that way too,” she noted.
She continued, “We had about 100 kids left after about a week that hadn’t been either asked about or posted about on the Facebook page. So we had another Google document that people could sign up if they were willing to adopt whatever student was available. Then we assigned every student to a person. So everyone in the student class has been assigned someone to ‘adopt’ them.”
Once every student had been “adopted,” Gregg reached out to connect the families. “It’s a little bit longer of a process, but I think it’s worth it because every kid has someone looking out for them,” Jones reflected. “My family actually ‘adopted’ two students, which we’re really excited about.”
So, what does “adopting a senior” actually mean? “Once a week, I encourage people to send a note, send flowers, it doesn’t have to be an expensive gift,” she noted. “It could be you go in your backyard and you pick some of your flowers that just bloomed and put them in a little package and drop them off at the person’s house. I think it’s the idea of it more than it is the expense of it.”
It also gives the community a chance to get creative with their tokens of appreciation. “I have a couple of little tiny canvases that I bought like 20 years ago thinking I’d have my kids put handprints on them,” she noted. “It never happened. So I’m going to use those and paint a 2020 congratulations sign on it for our two kids that we ‘adopted.'”
“My hope is that it just gives the students a little bit of emotional and mental support during this time and just gives them a little push to get to the end of senior year, finish strong – and to also know that the community is really behind them. I think at East Hampton, it’s hard sometimes,” Jones said. “We’re very connected to the City and, obviously, in the summertime we have an influx of people. There’s not always opportunities for them to get that feeling if they’re not involved in school activities, clubs and things like that. I just wanted them to feel like the people in East Hampton really feel for you guys, and we are supporting you, and we think you’re awesome.”
The program has been much appreciated by both families and students. “My senior son got his first card and it was just so great. It was like, ‘We love you. We think you’re doing great,'” Jones said. “He just had a smile on his face and I thought, yeah, that’s it. That is exactly it. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
“I know some of the seniors have gotten gifts and people have posted and said, ‘You know, my daughter was really down and she just got flowers delivered today and it just made her whole day,'” she added.
Jones hopes the mementos become keepsakes that students reflect upon for years to come. “I’m encouraging people to handwrite things. These kids have grown up in the age of technology. So they don’t have those tactile things to hold on to forever. You text someone and it’s gone,” Jones noted. “With this, they have something that they can hold on to and say, ‘This is my senior year, look what happened.’ And they can tell their kids and their grandkids, ‘I got this my senior year.’ I just think that the community support is so important, especially during a time of crisis and we’re definitely in a time of crisis right now.”
“Adopt a Bonacker Senior Student” will continue through graduation, which normally takes place at the end of June. While Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has approved limited high school graduation ceremonies, there is still plenty of uncertainty as to whether that will actually come to fruition. “It’s really hard for them to finish their senior year. It’s depressing right now,” she said. “Who wants to sit at the computer and finish their English and math? They want to see their friends, they want to hug their favorite teachers goodbye – and that’s all been taken away from them.”
“This has been great because I’m just seeing how much joy it’s bringing these kids already and it’s just started,” Jones reflected.
Jones would be over the moon if these newly formed relationships grew into long-lasting friendships. “I said to people, ‘You might develop a relationship with these kids, a friendship, a mentorship, and then you could keep communicating with them through college, through life.’ Those kind of relationships are just so valuable and we lose a lot of that, again, because of technology,” she said. “I remember being in high school and there was an elderly couple in my church who kind of took me under their wing and they knew I was interested in music, and they took me to see concerts and that relationship, it meant so much to me. I was like 16-years-old at the time and they were well into their 60s, I believe, at that point. I think the idea that that could develop is a beautiful thing, too.”
She is extremely grateful to those that have stepped in to help out with the program. “I’m so thankful for Becky Guidi and I’m so thankful for the class advisors for the senior class because the class advisors were just like, whatever you need, we will help you. They’re going above and beyond because obviously none of this is planned or in their usual job descriptions,” she expressed. “And Becky, her son is a freshman and she teaches at the High School, so she’s got a heart for those kids. She just jumped in and literally I could not have done it without her double checking all my work and contacting parents. She’s just been invaluable.”
In addition to the “Adopt a Bonacker Senior Student” campaign, Jones is looking towards a unique summer season with her work. “My company, South Fork Performing Arts, we’re working on our summer program right now. We’re trying to launch a couple things,” she noted. “We have a couple of makeup workshops coming up. We have a yoga for singers and yoga for actors workshop coming up. We’re trying to do stuff like that as much as we can, with Zoom and everything.”
Jones expects to unveil official programming in the near future. “We’re hoping to launch four week long sessions in the beginning of July, and then with a week in between. It’s not going to be really intense. Normally we have a summer camp program that runs from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., five days a week for three weeks and culminated in a performance,” she said. “Obviously, we can’t do that this year, because there’s no way we’re going to be able to have an audience, and I’m not going to have kids work for three weeks and not have an audience – because that would be torture for them. So we’re exploring some different options. I think they’ll be really cool.”
“I’m hopeful the kids that signed up for our summer camp program maybe will signup for this and give them something to do and look forward to, because these kids have had so much taken away from them,” Jones reflected.