Neighbors delivered hot meals and donated clothing and bags of groceries, complete strangers sent sympathy cards, and a GoFundMe page that was established to cover memorial and funeral costs and help the Ohio Township family rebuild their lives quickly raised more than $120,000.
Avonworth High School reached out, too, setting up a memorial fund in Hannah’s name through the Class of 2019. Money raised will go toward scholarships, said principal Keera Dwulit, including for student trips.
“Hannah was inspired by traveling and seeing the world,” she said, noting that the teen was supposed to go on a school-sponsored science trip to Iceland this summer. The Milbert family wants to make sure students with the same interests also have an opportunity to take trips abroad.
There also are plans for a permanent memorial, said Ms. Dwulit, possibly at the elementary school, where Hannah’s niece is a student.
Eighth-grade civics teacher Jason Smith had another idea about how students might help bring a grieving community together in the face of tragedy.
During the summer, he’d pondered a school project for his 125 students in which they could learn by doing, instead of the old-school way of listening to lectures, regurgitating facts and taking tests. He’s having the class organize and run a 5K race on the school grounds.
A growing body of research supports the idea of project-based learning, which helps students prepare for the real world by strengthening their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. As he explained in a letter sent home to parents, the project also will help the eighth-grade students become engaged citizens within their neighborhood and community, and hone their communication and marketing skills.
By the time students returned from Christmas break, preliminary plans he’d drawn up with gifted-program teacher Melissa DeSimone for the second-semester project were in place. Then the fire broke out on Jan. 7, and the race suddenly become more than just a vehicle for learning.
“The overall goal was always to help build their citizenship skills,” says Mr. Smith, who also is the high school cross-country coach. After Hannah’s death, he says, “It took on a greater significance.”
That’s because in the back of his mind he had the hope that the class — when it came time to vote on a charity to receive the proceeds — would choose the Hannah Milbert Memorial Fund as the beneficiary.
“But I wanted it to be student-driven,” he says.
And it was. The Chase the Antelopes 5K and 1-mile walk (named after the school mascot) will be held at 9 a.m. April 29, starting and finishing at Avonworth Middle School, with proceeds going to this memorial fund.
While Mr. Smith has overseen the project, the students have been responsible for all aspects of the race — everything from designing the shirts and awards and creating registration posters, to promoting the event through school newspaper articles and on social media and obtaining sponsorships from local businesses such as Forrest Orthodontics in Sewickley.
Owner Tom Forrest of Ben Avon, whose son was a classmate of one of Hannah’s siblings, donated backpacks and a gift basket containing Pirates tickets.
“It was a community tragedy, and we all shared in it,” he said. “We were all deeply affected.”
Each of Mr. Smith’s five classes was divided into five teams tasked with different objectives, with three major deadlines to keep them on track. On a recent Thursday, for example, students in his fourth-period class were working on a prototype for the awards (the class as a whole would vote on the winning design), making calls to Bellevue businesses seeking donations, coordinating who will speak to residents on the race course before the event, and drafting thank-you letters to be sent after the event to sponsors and volunteers on behalf of the Class of 2021.
One immediate task at hand was figuring out what to do with 100 pizza cutters McCandless-based Oxford Solutions had donated. They decided to place one in each of the goodie bags along with an apple from Soergel’s and a cookie from the Good L’Oven Cookie Shop.
“But we still need more,” a student called out.
Another small group was working on its original design for the wooden medals that would go to the race’s overall winners. Sean McAleer, 14, explained how they’d make them in Bill White’s tech-ed class using a laser engraver. They were inspired by a piece of art they’d seen on Google Images.
“We want to be creative and original,” said Brooke Johncour, 14, who hand-drew the antelope logo and played soccer with Hannah, a star on the team and an honor student. “We didn’t want the common, standard trophy.”
The promotions team, meanwhile, was crafting a video to promote the race during morning announcements.
As the students complete their tasks, they’re meticulously updated on a spreadsheet that’s displayed on an overhead screen at the front of the classroom. That keeps everyone up to speed on each other’s progress and also makes sure no one duplicates a call or an email.
As of Friday, the class had secured more than 30 sponsors and signed up more than 200 runners and walkers, exceeding their original expectations. But the more, the better.
And they’ve learned a lot in the process, says Mr. Smith.
“For some of the kids, this is the first time they’ve called an adult on the phone or even addressed an envelope,” he said, adding, “It’s pretty neat to see. They’re learning so many life skills.”
They’ve also learned that even a teenager can be an actively engaged citizen and make an impact on their community, which is no small thing in a country that’s been sharply divided by the presidential election.
“For a couple of hours, everyone will be united around a cause,” he says. “It’s a good way to close out the eighth-grade year.”
Not to mention help heal a grieving family.
“We’re lucky to be a part of an amazing community,” said Hannah’s older sister Jennifer Waters of Ben Avon. “We are especially touched that Hannah’s classmates came together and organized an event in her memory.”
To register to run or walk on April 29, go to ChaseTheAntelopes5k.com. The cost is $20.
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.
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