SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Back by popular demand, the Wellness Extravaganza held last year by South Orange Middle School returned with new vendors and new entertainment as students, parents, faculty and community members gathered in various parts of the school Thursday, May 12, for the main event, which featured booths from various health and wellness vendors.
The vendors present addressed all sectors of mental and physical well-being and included South Orange Environmental Commission, MedExpress Urgent Care, the South Mountain YMCA, Cheryl Faine Fitness and the Yoga Playhouse, as well as local favorite Girls Helping Girls Period, which was co-founded by South Orange Middle School student Quinn Joy.
Following the success of last year’s event, SOMS teacher Allison Cahill decided to bring it back with some new features and a focus on four critical health topics aligned to the SOMSD health curriculum. Throughout the week of May 9, expert speakers came to talk to the students about substance abuse, bullying, relaxation, nutrition and fitness.
Ensuring that all bases were covered, Cahill also arranged activities specifically for the teachers during the week, including bringing in a chiropractor and a chair massage for them to focus on stress reduction.
The week kicked off on May 9, with a “Bust My Stress Day,” where all staff and students received a stress dot — a device placed on the skin that changes color as your body temperature changes, not unlike a mood ring — in first period. Yoga instructors came in from the Yoga Play House and Align Wellness Studio to conduct yoga with health and physical education classes. That evening, parent keynote speaker Lauren Muriello facilitated an event in the school library on teens and stress, as well as a discussion on how to talk to teens about saying no to drugs and alcohol.
On May 10, the topic of focus was avoiding the pressures of drugs and alcohol, starting the day off with everyone receiving an antidrug bracelet. During health classes that day, eighth-graders heard speakers from Garden State Equality; seventh-graders heard GASP, a U.K.-based organization, discuss smoke-free environments; and the sixth-graders had a rap performance from The TWIM Experience, a nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading a message of anti-bullying. Cahill also set up speakers from NJ Child Assault to talk to students about cyberbullying.
Sports and fitness took center stage May 11, when all students and faculty were encouraged to wear their favorite sports jerseys. Periods two through four featured staff vs. student games of Wiffle ball, volleyball and badminton, and Viva Z Club of Maplewood came to physical education and health classes for periods six through eight to lead Zumba classes for students. Fresh smoothies and granola were available to staff members in the faculty room.
The grand finale of the week was the wellness event held May 12, which included free food, drinks and health screenings, cooking demonstrations and free chair massages.
“My thing is, and it’s always going to be, educating my students and exposing them to these one-on-one opportunities where they’re interacting with experts in the field and making them more knowledgeable about the resources around them,” Cahill said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I seize any opportunity to create a real excitement around wellness and health. This is a critical age for them; their emotional and social well-being is building and evolving. I picked the topics that are at the forefront of the middle school age so that they can make the right decisions moving forward.”
Cahill said that she was able to do more with this year’s event as the result of receiving a grant from the Achieve Foundation for $1,475 and grants from the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and YouthNet for a combined amount of $2,500.
“Being able to bring in drug experts was so crazy and so awesome. These are really important topics; I am trying to teach my students how to advocate for themselves,” she said. “Let’s stand up and be aware of the things that we can do and the things that are out there. You can’t ever give back enough and when I have the opportunity, I do.”
Cahill also said that including parents and teachers was important when talking about the wellness of the students.
“It’s important for the teachers to be stress-free as well,” she said. “We had a parent night for the parents to talk about how to calm their child down and why their children have a harder time calming down, and that they need to be mindful and in the present moment.”
As she did last year, Cahill created a pedometer challenge for the faculty and staff, and also enlisted students to make posters and logos for the event.
“I want to acknowledge my students; they really took on leadership roles for this event — everything from greeting the vendors when they arrived at the school to creating the banners for every table and thank you letters for all the vendors,” she said. “We also had students singing kindness carols at a kindness booth, and the Shakespeare club was reciting Shakespeare. The students were absolutely invested and engaged in the events.”
With the increasing awareness of the different forms of abuse, Cahill also made sure to bring in organization such as Advocates for Youth and the Family Life Education Center, whose table focused on the signs of relationship abuse.
Maplewood resident Nora Gelperin, who serves as the director of sexuality education and training for Advocates for Youth, was present at the wellness event to share information with students and community members alike about these realities.
“It’s really exciting to be a part of this event. We believe that young people have a right to honest and accurate information about sexuality, and we know it’s a topic that many people find to be controversial,” she said in a recent interview with the News-Record. “Sexual health, family friendship, healthy relationships, appropriate touching — we try to support school districts and parents and adult caregivers to help them feel more knowledgeable and comfortable about having these conversations. It really needs to be a partnership between families and schools, and they can teach the skills and get students thinking critically.”
In addition to her participation in the wellness event, Gelperin has been working with the South Orange-Maplewood School District for at least 10 years and was excited about the opportunity to reach the community in a new way.
Cahill’s excitement about the event and bringing her students useful information in a relevant format is what motivates her to keep making the event bigger and better each year.
“To bring in the parents and the students and the staff members and come together is such a powerful thing,” she said. “I want them to take pride in the school and in this event.”
Photos by Shanee Frazier