Building Community Connections

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and schools shut down, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the many students working on a big community-wide project at South Fayette High School in McDonald, PA.

Each spring, every student in the school is involved in a fundraising “Mini-thon” that, over the years, has raised about $650,000 for Four Diamonds, an organization that battles childhood cancer. The event engages the entire community, which is located about 30 minutes southwest of Pittsburgh.

“In 2019, we raised over $190,000 and we had the goal of $200,000 in 2020, but obviously we ran into a significant bump in the road when the pandemic hit and shut down our event, as well as our fundraising efforts,” says Brandon Flannery, a leadership adviser and teacher at the school. “Typically, over 85 percent of our fundraising takes place between March and April, and our event is usually held mid- to late April, so we were obviously not in a position to raise much money at all.”

But students, advisers, and community members decided to move forward with a virtual event, with each student still hosting their own fundraising page. The entire fundraising structure was managed by students in leadership organizations and in an honors business class that Flannery teaches. The students filled social media with creative fundraising ideas and then with reports about the closing event—where student efforts and community involvement are celebrated. (This closing event became virtual and was shortened from 12 hours to three hours this year.)

“We had to adjust, but the students and the community stepped up and we raised over $100,000,” Flannery says. More importantly, the school maintained its connection with the community that had been evident in the past—and may have amplified it.

“Our school is sort of the center of our community, and that has been brought to light during the pandemic in several ways,” Flannery notes. “We created a connection that bridges the community to the school through this event, and it was important to the community, the school, and each student.”

A Much-Needed Bridge

The effort at South Fayette is one of many around the country where student leaders work to connect the school and the local residents.

Experts at the Aurora Institute in Vienna, VA, say that having students involved in the community—and also local residents active in school events—pays off in a number of ways. It builds relations for the schools with the people whose tax dollars support education, and it increases citizens’ understanding of the school’s mission and activities, plus it adds to their familiarity with its students. It also makes connections for students to adults who might teach them new skills or provide them with valuable contacts, and it teaches students to work collaboratively on a project, especially with someone other than their peers.

James Layman, program director for the Association of Washington Student Leaders in Randall, WA, says he has seen a variety of ways that students have gotten the community involved in activities during the pandemic, which early on hit his state hard. In one case, students set up a photo booth where families could drive by and have their group picture taken safely and at a low cost, and elsewhere more familiar school events became virtual and included local residents.

“There is an emphasis on the family and community and expanding out to the community some events that typically reside solely within the school,” Layman says. “I have heard students often describe ways to turn traditional events such as spirit days or other school-based activities into community-wide celebrations. In many cases, I believe the best plans have come from students.”

Moving Ahead

At Lafayette Middle School in Oxford, MS, student leaders persisted with a traditional food drive in the spring in collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce and other community groups despite the pandemic. They organized the event by safely placing shopping carts and signs outside local stores and promoting the effort heavily through social media.

“Our community responded with shopping carts overflowing with nonperishable items,” says Penelope Allen, adviser for the student council, a sixth-grade math teacher and executive director for the Mississippi Association of Student Councils. “The food was distributed to families who really needed assistance in providing three meals per day. Our community came together and supported us and helped ease the uncertainties of living in a pandemic for some.”

One student leader, Ava Noe, worked with Allen and some classmates to develop an online platform for short interviews with students, teachers, and community leaders that others could view while practicing social distancing. Meanwhile, others in the group made around 100 masks for a local medical center.

At Green Level High School in Cary, NC, student leaders worked on a project to directly help limit the effects of COVID-19. Students developed a nonprofit during the pandemic to raise money for materials for a hygiene kit for homeless persons at rescue missions, providing them items such as masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, and soap. They held a fundraiser in the community that raised about $1,000 to purchase the supplies, and then students created the kits and made them available through the center.

At Toppenish High School on the Yakama Indian Reservation just outside of Yakima, WA, students (with guidance from leadership adviser Le Ann Straehle) found a solution that provided two levels of support. They purchased gift cards strategically to support local businesses that had been shuttered during the pandemic. “We knew economically the small businesses had lost a lot of income,” Straehle says. “So, we bought gift cards from local coffee shops, restaurants, and other places. Then we gave them away through online games with the students to help keep them engaged in school.”

In one game the students had to guess the teachers’ caricature-like “Bitmoji,” and in another they used a game called Kahoots in which students had to quickly respond to certain questions. They also held parades throughout the community.

The Spring-Ford Area School District’s student council in Royersford, PA, developed a series of simple projects that would get students from the school involved in their neighborhoods during the shutdown. “Our organization has always been focused on making our community a better place,” the group noted on a webpage. “We constantly strive to answer the calls of civic action. Now, maybe more than ever, our community needs that. Let’s take some simple yet very impactful steps to brighten the lives of those around us!”

The activities included providing uplifting and positive chalk messages on sidewalks and painted “kindness rocks,” scavenger hunts that younger children could do safely, and window banners with messages such as “We’ll get through this” and “Stay safe.”

Planning for the Year

Straehle and the leadership of her group have been meeting regularly—initially virtually and now in person—and have made plans for other events that can involve the community, including an online fundraising auction that was previously held at a local restaurant.

“We are a town of about 9,000 people in a rural area, so most of the events involve the schools one way or another. Our football stadium and gym are packed during games,” she says. “We know we need to connect with the community.”

Leigh Barry, activities coordinator at Kent-Meridian High School in Kent, WA, says her student leaders are ready to get involved in activities again that can help locally—and have plans for a number of them. “Our hope is to work with the regional blood services organization to figure out a way to do a socially distant blood drive once larger crowds are allowed. We are also hoping to conduct a school supply drive and a canned food drive with the community,” Barry says. They’re also planning a project that provides Thanksgiving meals to needy families, along with one that collects holiday presents for elementary school students from the community.

Youth Service America, an advocate for student volunteerism, has devoted its homepage to showcasing examples of how students can be involved during the pandemic, noting that they can support essential workers, help seniors who are isolated or people out of work, make and donate masks, and help people struggling with internet service, for instance.

“Volunteering and service are more important during a crisis than ever,” the organization says. “Social distancing does not mean social isolation. We’re all in this together, so be a helper. Let’s all do our part to contribute to the common good, so that when this crisis is over, we’re proud of how we came together to keep our young people, our communities, and our democracies thriving.” —


Jim Paterson is a freelance writer based in Lewes, DE.


Sidebar: The Value of Social Media

Social media has become increasingly important for student leadership groups in the last decade, but its value grew dramatically when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But student groups and their advisers often learned that while social media was even more valuable, it also had to be used thoughtfully and efficiently.

The Texas Association of Student Councils recommends its members and advisers consider these points:

  • Does this help advance the mission?
  • Does it coincide with the organization’s values?
  • Is the information timely, factual, and accurate?
  • Am I being respectful?
  • Am I familiar with school and organization policies?
  • Can I dedicate the time necessary to keeping a social networking site relevant and active?

In a detailed review of effective, safe, and legal social media use, the Iowa State University Student Activities Center also includes these helpful tips:

  • Form a strategy. Which platforms do you want to use? Identify your purpose, audience, types of content you intend to share, and your organization’s overarching goals. Think about which social media platforms your target is using. Instead of jumping into every social media platform that comes along, invest quality time and effort in those that most benefit your needs. Research other organizations on social media networks for ideas on what works and what doesn’t.
  • Set your goals. Are you trying to communicate a campaign, promote your student organization, connect with alumni, create a community, or increase overall awareness of your group? Your goals should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely.
  • Link to other school programs. For example, use their Twitter handles, tag others in your posts, or retweet/share content from other programs.
  • Make the time—and update. Don’t start a social media effort unless you have the dedicated time and resources to maintain new content on a regular basis. New content is critical to thrive in social media communities. Update it regularly.
  • Be authentic. Social media is all about people connecting with people. Remember to humanize your social media interactions. On social networks, it is OK to use an exclamation point and phrases such as “check it out” rather than “read more.”
  • Be respectful and positive. Respect for the dignity of others and for the civil and thoughtful discussion of opposing ideas is critical. Feel free to respectfully disagree with a position, but do not propagate online confrontation, as that reflects poorly on both the individual and the group. A good rule of thumb: If you would not say it in person, don’t say it online. Remember, you are representing your entire organization and your school.
  • Measure success. Determine what success means for your purpose and goals. Increased traffic to your website? Better communication with other students, staff, and the community? Number of followers and comments? Determine a way to measure it and get usable data.