LOWER MAKEFIELD >> An Earth Day celebration at Afton Elementary School has earned the Pennsbury school national recognition from an organization dedicated to promoting an energy conscious and educated society.

The National Energy Education Development (NEED) Project has named Afton as its Pennsylvania School of the Year and a National Elementary Finalist for its “Afton H.O.P.E. (Helping Others Protect the Earth)” education project.

The school will be recognized at the NEED Project’s 41st Annual Youth Energy Conference and Awards to be held in person and virtually via Zoom from June 25-27 in Washington, D.C.

The NEED Project trains and assists teachers in harnessing the energy of the classroom – the energy of students.

“It started as a small idea,” said Afton SPARK teacher Kristin Slota, who planted the seeds for what would become Afton H.O.P.E. last fall when she proposed a departmental event for Earth Day.

It grew from there, blossoming from five to 16 key organizers who have been working together on the project since January.

“It started as a lesson, which then became a couple lessons, which then became a day. And then it became a day and more,” said Slota. “The whole idea,” she said, “is to make kids more aware of what they can do to help the environment.”

Sloda and her cohorts dubbed the event, “Afton H.O.P.E.,” which stands for “Helping Others Protect the Earth.”

The organizers also drafted between 25 and 30 fourth and fifth grade students to act as Earth Day ambassadors. They helped with events, fundraising, creating posters, assembling gift bags and promoting Earth Day throughout the school.

In a lead up to the big celebration, the kids raised about $800 for One Tree Planted, a nonprofit organization that plants a tree for every dollar it receives.

“Our goal was to raise $1 for each student at the school, or about $500,” said Slota. “I don’t have an exact figure yet, but as of earlier this week we were at about $800, far exceeding our goal. The kids were out there drumming up support each day.”

As a visual reminder of the campaign, kindergarten teacher Emily Kochinski came up with the idea of transforming two pillars in the school’s lobby into a pair of towering trees branded with the words “Afton HOPE,” and wrapped in brown paper with branches reaching toward the ceiling. A single leaf was then added to each of the trees for every dollar raised.

“We even had two fourth grade girls organize their own bake sale. They raised $56 and brought it into school for One Tree Planted,” said Slota.

“I thought that was pretty cool. And that was a part of this - to get the kids to take the initiative and to do things that would make a difference,” said Slota.

The school’s PTO also created a Paypal account so kids being educated virtually could contribute from home and be part of the activity.

Afton H.O.P.E. officially kicked off in March with a grade level virtual class with the school’s five special area teachers presenting a lesson on the four R’s - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Repair.

“We showed them pictures of each of us doing the four R’s in our families and then we asked them, ‘Hey we want you guys, in the next month, to take pictures of what you do at home with the four R’s," said Slota. "More than 100 submit pictures. And our music teacher compiled a really cool video showing the kids doing the four R’s.”

The kids also designed and made their own Earth Day buttons, which they wore to the Earth Day celebration.

“They were so proud. They wore those buttons like a badge,” said Slota.

On Earth Day itself, which also happens to be Slota’s birthday, each grade level heard from a special speaker, including State Rep. Perry Warren who addressed the fifth graders; school board member Gary Sanderson, an environmental specialist who spoke to fourth graders; and school board member Chip Taylor who spoke to second graders about bees and pollination.

First and fifth graders also heard from a mom who works for BrightFarms, which operates a network of sustainable greenhouse farms. First, third and fourth graders heard from Vanderbilt University’s Bella Ritchie through the Skype-A-Scientist program. And third graders heard from a representative from One Tree Planted.

In addition, State Sen. Steve Santarsiero delivered a recorded video message to the students.

Waste Management Inc. also sent a garbage truck to the celebration. They spent more than two hours at the school delivering more than six different presentations.

“Every kindergartener, first and second grader got to attend. I felt like I was in Disney World,” said Slota. “They were so engaging and so knowledgable. They did such a good job of talking to the kids on their level.”

Other activities included a reading and discussion of Earth Day themed books, including “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss; estimating the number of bottle caps inside of a classroom jar; animal yoga; Earth Day fitness; creating artwork for the Afton HOPE tree; a recycle toss; and penning their own Earth Day pledges.

“And we’re not really done,” said Slota.

“We are still restoring our garden. There’s a team of teachers working on that. Because of COVID, we couldn’t get into the building so our courtyard garden really doesn’t look so good. Last Friday, five of us were in there weeding and cleaning up. We are looking for that to get restored.”

Slota said the school is working with Bucks Beautiful on a plan to install raised metal beds. “We don’t have a plan yet. We just have a lot of ideas.”

According to Slota, every child in the school received an Earth Day Celebration Saver - a bag filled with goodies, including reusable shopping bags donated by Shop Rite, mini-moo cows and bracelets from Chick-Fil-A, recycled crayons, stickers and an Earth-shaped seed paper from the PTO.

“The kids were super excited to leave with reminders and useful items donated by our area businesses,” said Slota.

In addition, faculty members received a gift bag from McCaffrey’s Food Market. And each student also will be receiving a mini-greenhouse through One Tree Planted.

Slota was the lead organizer on the event with help from librarian Deb Koehler, kindergarten teacher Emily Kochinski and many others, including teachers, administrators and staff.

In addition to Chick-Fil-A Newtown, Shop Rite and McCaffrey’s, the event was supported by Redberry Yogurt and Home Depot.

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