'Everybody Needs a Friend'
Renowned dog behavior specialist Cesar Millan (left) and NSALA President John Stevenson (2nd from right) present a $10,000 educational grant to the Grand Prize Winners of the Mutt-i-grees “America Adopts” PSA Contest. Students and educators from Carrie Palmer Weber Middle School in Port Washington, NY, attended the 2012 DogCatemy Mutt-i-grees Rescue Awards Gala at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, where the check was presented. In attendance (left to right): Millan; Steven Russo, student; Daniel Ciccone, technology teacher; Joanna Zolli, student; Marilyn Rodahan, Principal, Stevenson, and Thomas Stepanek, technology teacher.
For Weber Middle School Mutt-i-grees® “America Adopts” PSA Contest Grand Prize Winners, New Friendships and New Ambitions
Most of the nine Carrie Palmer Weber Middle School 7th graders who won this year’s Mutt-i-grees® “America Adopts” PSA Contest Grand Prize didn’t even know each other a year ago. Technology teachers Danny Ciccone and Tommy Stepanek had become very popular among a number of their former students, several of whom had begun visiting them outside of class time. The teachers laugh when telling the story, explaining that they expected the students to be productive if they were going to come to their classrooms. “If you’re going to be here, “they’d told them, “you’re going to do work.”
In the beginning this meant doing simple tasks like helping the teachers decorate their bulletin boards. However, when the school principal, Marilyn Rodahan, approached the group of students about the national competition that North Shore Animal League America was sponsoring, the “lunch club” switched into high gear and produced their winning video, “Everybody Needs a Friend,” in just a few days. As a result, the students won the grand prize: a $10,000 educational grant and a visit to their school from Cesar Millan, the renowned dog behavior expert whose Foundation is a longstanding supporter of the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum.
Students from all across the country responded to Millan’s call to create PSAs (public service announcements) that would raise awareness about Mutt-i-grees and encourage people to adopt rather than support pet stores or other entities that sacrifice animal welfare for the sake of profit.
Weber Middle School’s PSA features parallel stories of an outcast student — played by 12-year-old Steven Russo, who, in real life, is a fun-loving skateboarder whom everyone affectionately calls “The Fonz”— and an unloved stray dog, played by both Jordan Ramos and Edward Malino (wearing a fuzzy Dalmatian suit). By the end of the video, the boy and the dog find a friend in one another, as intrigued onlookers become curious about pet adoption and turn to the website of North Shore Animal League America, the world’s largest no-kill animal rescue and adoption organization.
Even though most of the students didn’t even know each other last year, they now have a great rapport, not only with their two technology teachers but also with one another. These kids have a keen awareness of bullying and just how wrong it is, which is a strong theme in their PSA. It’s no wonder that they get along with others so well and have such a strong sense of empathy.
According to their teachers, when the students started brainstorming ideas for the video, they decided that they had to “think in the mind of a pet.” When imagining the emotions that a shelter dog or homeless animal might experience, words like “lonely” and “isolated” came up; they quickly realized, “That’s the same kind of thing we talk about in our assemblies: bullying.”
Currently, many schools across the nation from Pre-K through 8th grade (and soon to include high school as well) are implementing the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum for just this purpose, since educators are finding that the social and emotional skills that the Curriculum teaches are effective in the prevention of bullying. The Weber students’ history so far with its school’s anti-bullying campaign certainly helps to explain their seemingly effortless creative process in so quickly producing such a moving video – but their own experiences with the topics at hand clearly helped fuel their passion for the subject matter, too. Twelve-year-old Tessa Weiner explains that everyone can remember what it had been like to be at a new school the previous year and not know a lot of people yet. “I felt very isolated my 6th grade year,” she confesses.
For many of the students, their connections to their pets, as well as their affection for their neighbor, North Shore Animal League America, helped connect them so closely to the topic as well. Tess, for instance, needs no convincing that dogs have feelings just like people do; she is certain that her miniature poodle, Lulu, and the next door neighbor’s dog have crushes on each other. According to Mr. Ciccone, many of the students say, of Animal League America, “I go there all the time.”
Thanks to the Mutt-i-grees “America Adopts” PSA Contest, these students can add one more passion to their list of interests: film-making. On a roll now with this winning debut under their belts, the group has expressed an interest in continuing to produce “videos with a message.” They’re currently working on a “transition day” video to help ease the fears of 5th graders who are about to graduate and become new students at Weber next year.
Thanks to the $10,000 grant that the students won for their video, soon they will no longer have to rely on the video software of Mr. Stepanek’s roommate’s Mac – or what Mr. Ciccone describes as his “point and shoot” that was used in the filming. Luckily, the two teachers have plenty of experience with how to use video equipment; now they hope to be able to furnish the school with the tools that will help the students realize their full potential in future collaborations. In addition to better production equipment, the group would also like to have a video display in the school’s hallway so that student-produced work can be seen by everyone in the building on a regular basis.
The students say that doing the project not only helped reinforce the anti-bullying message in their minds; it also clarified what a priority friendship is in their lives. When asked how many of the group she knew before working together under the supervision of Mr. Ciccone and Mr. Stepanek, 12-year-old Sarahi Interiano looks around the room, smiling, and says, “I didn’t know anyone!”
The ability to empathize with and show compassion for both shelter pets and each other, as these students have done, is at the heart of the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, which the school has already begun looking into implementing. Ms. Rodahan is very interested in the Social and Emotional Learning that the Curriculum helps to foster and is excited about all of the possibilities that the program has to offer her school.
Runners-Up Get Second Chance at Mutt-i-grees® “America Adopts” PSA Contest
Every Mutt-i-gree deserves a second chance at a happy, new life. Now, thanks to the Mutt-i-grees “America Adopts” Second Chance PSA Contest, every runner-up school that submitted a public service announcement to this year’s contest also has a second chance at winning! Of the schools still in the running, the top three will be chosen by popular vote.
The video that gets the most plays wins a $1,500 educational grant for the school of the students who made it. Second and third-place prizes will be $1,000 and $500, respectively. Everyone is encouraged to help their favorite school win. Voting begins January 2 and runs through January 16.