Teacher Elizabeth Moss holds hotspot-capable smartphones to be distributed to GSA students who lack internet connectivity at home. Gifts from community members will pay for short-term data plans for the phones, which were donated by U.S. Cellular. PHOTO COURTESY OF GEORGE STEVENS ACADEMY

Hotspots help GSA students connect

By Mark Messer

Special to The Ellsworth American

BLUE HILL — George Stevens Academy is helping its students with internet connectivity and boxes of food thanks to support from community members during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Oh gosh, that’s amazing!” a GSA junior said when teacher Elizabeth Moss told her the school would soon provide a smartphone to be used as a mobile hotspot.

The junior is one of around 20 GSA students with weak or no internet at home. Since remote schooling began in mid-March, lack of internet connectivity has been a real hindrance for these students.

Though all GSA students are provided laptop computers, those without reliable internet at home received their classwork as paper packets. Teachers worked diligently to ensure those packets provide as much academic benefit as online materials, but these smartphones will enable them to engage with their teachers and peers in a more timely manner and join online discussions starting this week.

The first full week of remote learning, Moss reached out to teachers and parents to find out which students were struggling with online access. When administrators realized that remote schooling would be extended, Moss moved quickly to find ways to provide internet access. The best option was to purchase smartphones to be used as hotspots and to pay for short-term data plans for students. Though the school’s finance committee authorized the unbudgeted expenditure, the hope was that community members would hear about the need and give to ensure these students the best chance for academic success.

The need was quickly met with more than $4,000 in gifts to the fund. U.S. Cellular donated the phones.

“Members of our GSA community,” said Director of Advancement Rada Starkey, “are demonstrating that they’re eager to help during the COVID-19 crisis and have proven to be extremely generous. In less than a week, trustees, staff, alumni, parents and friends came together to meet the need for the internet initiative and the yearbook initiative.”

The yearbook initiative, announced at the same time, provides copies of “The Mountain Echo” for seniors who cannot afford them. Though all GSA students are missing out on spring activities, seniors have lost their last chance to participate in spring sports, concerts and plays, and to attend the prom. For them, it is more important than for any other graduating class to have a memento of their final year as Eagles. Though most seniors purchase their own yearbooks, donations from community members to this second special fund have enabled the school to buy yearbooks for seniors for whom $50 is just too much to pay.

The greatest emerging need, however, was the first identified. Students from 46 GSA families regularly depend on the school’s Food for Thought Fund to help pay for their school lunches. Food Services Director Kristyn LaPlante initiated a team effort to provide food care packages to those families, as well as others experiencing food insecurity for the first time.

Since March 25, more than a dozen members of the GSA staff have helped assess the need for, order, pick up, prepare, and pack approximately two tons of food that has been distributed. School baker Toni Staples, a GSA graduate with a daughter in the senior class has been making homemade treats.

A loaf of Staples’ banana bread went into each box distributed April 22. Also included: tuna, eggs, milk, bread, cheese, peanut butter, dried beans, cereal, crackers, soup, sugar, flour, toilet paper, rice, pasta, celery, carrots, onions, potatoes, apples and oranges. These large care packages go out to about 25 families every two weeks.

According to Starkey, more than $11,000 has been given to the Food for Thought Fund to support this current effort to feed families, and an additional gift of $10,000 was made to the fund’s endowment to support GSA’s efforts to address food insecurity in the long term.

The endowment, established by Blue Hill resident Dottie Hayes in 2017, has nearly doubled since her initial $100,000 gift thanks to the generosity of many, but the local need for support in is expected to grow, especially if GSA continues distributing food to families after the end of the school year in June, a move being considered by the administration.

“We continue to accept gifts to purchase, package and distribute food for food-insecure students and their families,” Starkey said. Gifts can be made online at georgestevensacademy.org/onlinegift or by mail: George Stevens Academy, Advancement Office, 23 Union St., Blue Hill, ME 04614.

“And to everyone who has stepped forward during these challenging times,” said Starkey, “we thank you.”

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