CA Curious

Uncomfortable Magic

November 16, 2023

As Service Learning Director, I have the unique honor of helping push our students outside the comfort of our familiar school environment and into the wider world. Time and time again, I have seen firsthand the incredible learning and self-discovery these uncomfortable and unfamiliar moments often yield.  

Consider: a spark of unexpected human connection with someone you perhaps thought was so different. A new perspective gained on learning firsthand the daily barriers with which some live—roadblocks that seem unimaginable to you. The development of compassion and kindness as we think beyond ourselves to discover and appreciate the humanity in all our neighbors. The sense of belonging and purpose created by addressing a social issue that is personally relevant and meaningful.

These impactful moments are the magic of service learning—the ones that help prepare our students to go out into the world as kind, ethical, and empathic changemakers. 

Indeed, service learning offers unique opportunities for students to put the social-emotional learning curriculum of the classroom and advisory program into meaningful community practice. Empathy is woven into all of CA’s service-learning initiatives, from Special Olympics to Delta Service Club’s work to the annual Giving Tree program, Backpack Buddies, and beyond.

I don’t do this work alone, of course. I’m supported in it by CA’s mission and core values, our incredible employees, and a host of community partners. These partnerships—which balance community needs with CA’s student learning and development goals—are developed with humility, intention, and a genuine desire to understand social problems. After all, it is only in an environment of trust and respect that we can work together towards solutions, whether through direct community service or advocacy work.

Across CA and within the Center for Community Engagement (CCE), students, faculty, and staff are challenged to engage in discussions, experiences, and unfamiliar, eye-opening, and exhilarating learning. In our Middle School, I’ve worked closely with our faculty to integrate service learning into their curriculum, advisory time, and Community Days. 

Just check out what we’ve been up to this year (and its only November!).

In sixth grade, students learn about local food insecurity and engage in our Backpack Buddies program. The initiative begins with a day of experiential service learning, visiting local food stores to explore food costs, nutrition, and accessibility. They hear from the Interfaith Food Shuttle staff and are challenged to think about what it might feel like to go hungry over a weekend or not have an adult at home to help fix a meal. Throughout the school year, students run targeted food collection campaigns and think about how to engage the resources of our CA community for the benefit of students who go to school just down the road. Sixth graders pack 120 food bags each month for our partner school, Reedy Creek Elementary, which CA parents deliver. 

“Straightforward, concrete experiences give 6th graders the building blocks they need to understand abstract ideas. “Service” can be especially abstract for 6th graders who aren’t old enough yet to participate in many service-centered activities. Backpack Buddies allows them to give back to our local community in a tangible, immediate way. Students organize the food, pack the bags, make friendly cards, and help remind their grown-ups to contribute to our food drives.”– Katie Taylor, sixth-grade

Our seventh graders study migration in history and language arts with a current focus on farmworkers. Here, service learning might include a panel discussion with recent immigrants and those who work in NGOs serving them). It might entail more direct service opportunities—such as gleaning sweet potatoes for donation to food-insecure neighbors—that give students a sense of the grueling work of migrant farmworkers.  Or ask students to use their new persuasive writing skills to develop a compelling call for clothing donations to benefit one of our longtime partner organizations, Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn, NC (this year, students brought in over 1100 clothing items!). 

“Done well, service learning can be the heart and soul of a curriculum—and the means for real, authentic change in communities. At its best, it is about partnerships—about mutuality—about listening and addressing real needs. We have strived to do this with our study of migration in seventh-grade history and language arts. We want our kids to really understand what it means to move to a new place—how hard that can be—and how we can support folks who are new to our area. If we do it well, our kids really put themselves in the shoes of migrants and refugees—and see them as people like themselves. Service learning can be a powerful way for students to be better listeners and more community-oriented people.”  – Lucy Dawson, seventh-grade language arts teacher and team leader. 

This year, in 8th grade, students are engaging in a pilot environmental justice service learning initiative focused on water quality. In science class, students are diving deeply into local ecological justice issues in North Carolina, with case studies on topics such as water contamination, stormwater runoff, and habitat destruction—and conducting hands-on water quality testing at the SAS ponds in order to determine the impact of nearby human activities on the health of this habitat.  This week, students participated in teach-ins with visiting researchers, journalists, riverkeepers, local government workers, and NGO administrators who dedicate their professional lives to keeping water safe and accessible to all members of our community. Students then c

In language arts, they are “taking a stand”— an immersive project that requires them to research, articulate, and persuasively advocate for a cause that is personally meaningful. This cross-curricular project will continue into the spring, where students will learn about student-led advocacy movements in the past and present in their history classes. 

Community-based service learning allows our student scientists to connect what they learn in class to the real world. It asks them to think critically about the role of science in a broader community context. When students participate in environmental justice service learning experiences connected to current and local water quality challenges, they deepen their understanding and see how it can help inform thoughtful action and community collaboration.” — Rachel Bringewatt, eighth-grade science teacher

Service learning is a fiber that is naturally, yet intentionally, woven into the work of CA. In all our service learning initiatives, students reflect deeply on their learning experiences—a critical learning step that helps them develop a sense of self and their place in the world. 

As CCE Project Coordinator & Program Manager CJ Bell put it, “These authentic learning experiences set students on the path to becoming changemakers as they work to resolve persistent issues in our local and global society. What a gift to be starting this work in Middle School!”

Written by Maggie Grant, Service Learning Director


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Beyond the numbers

February 9, 2023

CA’s website proudly proclaims that we “cultivate bold lifelong learners and world changers.” It is a bold statement, for sure, and one that we aim to deliver through our innovative and relentless commitment to the pursuit of discovery, innovation, excellence, and collaboration.  

But what does that look like in practice?  

Perhaps one of the most impactful venues where students are empowered to pursue their interests—often to impressive, change-making results—is our student-led clubs program. A protected part of the Upper and Middle School weekly schedules, clubs are an essential aspect of the student experience, offering a chance to try new things, take risks, pursue passions, share experiences, try on leadership roles, and even create positive change in our local community.  

Don’t take it from me, though.  

I’m going to turn it over to junior Tanya Sachdev, founder of the Students Together Assisting Refugees (STAR) club, to share her club’s origins, goals, and the ways in which our community can come together to support local refugees in our community (spoiler alert: STAR has an informative, engaging and awareness-generating event ahead). 

From Tanya Sachdev, ’24: 

Numbers. We hear them every time we turn on the news. They define our perception of the word “Refugee”: 89.3 million forcibly displaced people, 28 million total refugees in our world (UNHCR). To some, these may just be statistics, but for others, these numbers are their world. The Global Refugee Crisis has become a humanitarian crisis impacting millions of people in our world. Through war, persecution, and natural disasters, the crisis continually expands. 

I learned about the importance of these numbers when I was driving to school in August of 2021. NPR was turned on in the background, sharing about the Afghan Refugee Crisis. As I listened, I was shocked about how little I knew about the word “refugee”. Through researching the Afghan Refugee Crisis, I was perturbed by headlines stating the extent of this crisis. Stories of young children scaling the Hindu Kush mountains or braving the Aegean Sea to escape into freedom headlined my screen. While I was purchasing a new backpack for the school year, thousands of Afghans were packing their backpacks with their most valued possessions for a long journey to find safety; their worlds were changing forever.  

To learn more, I began volunteering at local organizations such as Refugee Hope Partners and CWS Durham. Through tutoring students like “Malia”, a Syrian refugee, or “KK”, a refugee from Botswana, I began to learn their stories and identity beyond the label of “refugee”. I wanted to be able to use my opportunity to give back to the refugee community. As a result, STAR (Students Together Assisting Refugees) Club began in December of 2021. Through Cary Academy’s emphasis on student-led clubs, I was able to create STAR during the middle of the year. With Cary Academy’s support, STAR was able to raise donations, money, and most importantly, awareness. 

After all, STAR began with a sole goal: awareness. Labels such as IDPs, asylum-seekers, and refugees continually pervade news stations with audiences confounded by the differences between the terms. Numbers appear in the form of statistics such as 50% of world refugees are children or nearly 100 million displaced people (UNHCR). The refugee crisis, however, is more than a crisis of numbers and labels. It is a crisis of human suffering. Refugees face unbelievable hardships on their journey to freedom. From being denied basic rights such as education or healthcare to facing violence, abuse, and exploitation, refugees withstand constant adversity. Raising awareness has become a key component to helping local and global refugee organizations.  

One month into the inception of STAR Club at Cary Academy, the Russia-Ukrainian war caused the “fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II” (UNHCR) with nearly 2.9 million refugees fleeing Ukraine. From Syria to Afghanistan to Ukraine, the Global Refugee Crisis remains continuous and unrelenting. As a society, now more than ever, awareness and action have become imperative to support refugees.  

As a result, STAR Club is hosting its first Dinner with a Documentary event on Tuesday, February 28, 2023, from 6 PM-8 PM in the Discovery Studio. The free event will begin by watching “Refugee” by Alexander J Farrell, a true story following a Syrian family separated by the borders of Europe. Their harrowing and emotional journey will be followed by a panel discussion with invited experts. Panelists include representatives from refugee organizations, law students, and even a brief virtual appearance from Congresswoman Ross. The event will be complemented by an authentic Mediterranean dinner spread, complete with desserts and drinks. Be prepared to be moved to tears, to be angry, and for your perception of refugees to be forever changed. 

Please sign up for this unique event as soon as possible- spots are limited. https://www.signupgenius.com/go/8050c4faaa823a75-star#/ 

Written by Mandy Dailey, Director of Communications


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September 9, 2021

A puzzled voice from the back: “Can we just leave our kid home alone?”  

Said with a sigh from another seat: “Maybe we don’t need health insurance; it is too expensive.”  

A third chimed in, frustration evident: “No, our kid can’t have ice cream. We can’t afford it.”  

I sat quietly, watching the wheels turn as our 6th graders maneuvered through the process of SPENT, an online simulator that walks users through a month of spending on a limited budget, of balancing necessary expenses like rent, health insurance and medical care, groceries, utilities, childcare, and more. 

Of course, the students knew they should never leave a sick child home alone, but they also knew that their fictional job did not offer the flexibility to take a day off and their childcare funds were . . .  well, there were no childcare funds. They understood that they would never want to go to school with dirty clothes, but they also recognized that a laundry mat costs money they did not have. 

Our students struggled with these difficult challenges plucked from the real world; impossible choices that must be made. Do you pay high health insurance premiums or risk devastatingly costly emergency medical bills? Do you take a new job with a higher salary but longer hours that increases costly childcare needs?  These are, of course, the difficult and nuanced decisions–the realities–faced by many in our own community on a daily basis.  

Later, students embarked on field trips to local stores, including Dollar Tree and Walgreens, to see just how far they could stretch their limited grocery budget dollars. New realizations, new questions emerged: where was the fresh produce? How do you eat healthy if you live in an urban food desert? How do you meet your grocery needs if you can only shop at stores where stock is limited and overpriced? Why are there food deserts? Why aren’t grocery stores available to everyone? 

Across these activities you could see the thoughts forming, lightbulbs clicking on all over the room.  Nebulous concepts were rendered into stark and uncomfortable realizations: not everyone in our community can afford the basics necessary to survive. Many are engaging in impossibly complicated balancing acts simply trying to keep food on the table. Just a half mile down the road, students our ages don’t have adequate access to food.  

I watched as students sat in these uncomfortable realities, thinking deeply, realizing that not everyone has their privilege; many children go hungry at night. Importantly, in their newfound empathy and awareness, I saw the initial sparks of resolve, of wanting to be part of a solution. 

For me, this is the power of experiential learning: those “lightbulb” moments—transformative epiphanies when students move beyond learning simple facts to understanding complex concepts and systems. And nowhere are these more important than in service learning.  

Our service-learning focus in 6th grade is Backpack Buddies, which helps address food insecurity in our community by sharing food with local elementary schoolers. Backpack Buddies is a wonderful and important program, and one supported by many local area schools, often with canned food donation drives.  

These drives, organized and led by our Middle School students, are crucially important to our local Backpack Buddies chapter. But, at CA, they are only one piece of the service-learning puzzle; our incredible Service Learning Director, Maggie Grant, is using this program as a springboard to help our students understand that our responsibility to addressing local food insecurity doesn’t begin and end with the donation of a few canned goods.  

Instead, we want our students to understand food insecurity—the sad truth that 1 in 5 American children deal with hunger—on a systemic level. We want them to think critically and complexly about the conditions—social, economic, geographic, political, and more—that are creating and exacerbating food insecurity. We want them to develop empathy for those whose experiences are vastly different from their own. And we want to prepare them to use that knowledge thoughtfully, ethically, and in partnership with our community to help create new, better systems that allow everyone to have equitable access to healthy food.  

If that seems like a heavy lift for 6th graders, sixth-grade language arts teacher Katie Taylor would like to assure you that it isn’t! Consider these reflections that her students shared with her: 

“I learned today that no matter what, people should get enough food; there are invisible challenges for people dealing with low incomes or poverty . . .  we can come together to help many hungry people out there.”  

“At the store, we realized that a lot of the items we found were not quite as nutritious as we hoped they’d be. Most of the items we found were not friendly to those allergic to nuts!”  

A third student wisely reflected that “Having food on the table is harder than it sounds. You can’t just snap…. There are a lot of things that you need to think about.”  

As Ms. Taylor says, “these students have all found a lightbulb moment; we’ll work together this year to help them keep the lights on” as we encourage them to look outside themselves, to solve community problems, and to think deeply with empathy.  

Written by Danielle Johnson-Webb, Director of Equity & Community Engagement

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WRAL reporter Sarah Kreuger talks with CA students


Student service, affinity groups make news

April 29, 2021

Yesterday, WRAL reporter Sarah Kreuger visited Cary Academy’s campus to highlight two student-led community efforts.

Kreuger spoke with Chloe Griffin ’21 and Vibhav Nandagiri ’21 about their ongoing effort to support Triangle area LatinX communities by assembling personal protective equipment (PPE) kits and distribute vaccination information in support of Curamericas Global.

Later, Kreuger sat down with Angelina Chen ’21, Vicki Jin ’21, and Alex Lim ’22 to explore their experience as leaders of CA’s Asian American Affinity Group and the social climate for Asian Americans in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing violence directed against Asians and Asian Americans.

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager


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Nurturing the roots of service

April 15, 2021

At CA, we boldly strive to create the next generation of local and global changemakers. We hope that our students leave our campus armed with the agency, self-awareness, skills, knowledge, and passion to leave their stamp on our world–to forge impactful change and make meaningful contributions to our society. It is a lofty goal, for sure, but one that—time and again—we have the privilege of seeing unfold in real time, as our students venture out in the world.  

Grounded in social justice and equity, and with natural ties with experiential learning and entrepreneurship, our service-learning program–one of the four pillars of the Center for Community Engagement—is integral to this goal and to the CA experience.  

The mission and intent of the service-learning program are to engage students in service that is impactful and transformative. Through service initiatives, students: 

  • Learn about social issues and community needs 
  • Seek out partnerships with community experts and organizations 
  • Engage in direct service, indirect service, and advocacy 
  • Actively reflect on service experiences, social issues, and privilege in order to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, our community, and our social responsibility 
  • Treat all individuals with dignity and respect. 

When we understand service to be an act of justice, we strive to make our community a more equitable place—one where all members of our local, national, and global communities can survive and, ultimately, flourish. This holds true whether students are writing cards for food-insecure elders connected with Meals on Wheels; creating advocacy posters to educate peers about the challenges faced by immigrants; cooking and serving meals for guests at Oak City Cares; packing PPE kits for neighbors in Durham; or sorting clothing at Note in the Pocket to be distributed to their peers in Wake County Public Schools.  

The goals of the service learning program are strongly tied to Cary Academy’s strategic plan and goals to foster authentic engagement opportunities and strong community connections—those that foster the intellectual and cultural elasticity needed to thrive in the world, and which broaden student perspectives and world views. With service, students are encouraged to seek out partnerships with community organizations and intentionally nurture those relationships. Developing mutually beneficial collaborative partnerships is critical to creating meaningful service-learning experiences.  

Whether through the Upper School’s Delta Service Club, the Migration Collaboration project, an individual capstone project, or Backpack Buddies—just to name a few opportunities— students are challenged to listen and learn from their fellow community members and consider new perspectives, all while examining their own.  

7th graders engaged in Migration Collaboration have the opportunity to go on “excursions” to visit (virtually, this year) local organizations that serve newcomers. They learn from professionals and from experts—refugees and immigrants themselves—about community needs, strengths, and ways they can serve others. Later on, they put their research and learning to work doing direct service projects like gleaning sweet potatoes or designing informational brochures that spotlight the local Burmese farmers who will be growing the food in our new CA Asian vegetable CSA in partnership with Transplanting Traditions.  

Understanding the social justice roots of CA’s service learning program allows our students to be a part of making our community a place where EVERYONE has the resources needed to pursue discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence—values we hold dear at Cary Academy. 

Effective service learning challenges students to think about the community around them and aspects of their own identities that carry privilege. Our hope is that Cary Academy students engaged in service will be reflective and moved to examine their place in the world. The self-awareness that develops from these practices will serve our students for years to come.  

Experiential learning through service teaches empathy for others, a deeply important life skill. One student reflected on his experience gleaning turnips earlier this year, sharing that he was humbled upon learning that, despite picking over 400 turnips, there would be an immediate need for more due to the pandemic’s exacerbation of local food insecurity. This experience revealed to him “how badly people need basic necessities, even food.” Another student explained how the simple act of donating tampons to a drive hosted by the Women’s Health and Wellbeing Committee of Delta helped her realize that “access to hygiene products is a privilege but should not be; it should be a right.” 

The service learning program at Cary Academy provides numerous opportunities for both Upper School and Middle School students to own their learning and embrace leadership opportunities through Flex Day activities, Delta, Student Leadership Club, and more. In collaboration with community partners, service grounded in an understanding of equity can provide students with leadership opportunities that are truly transformative.  

This year, senior Chloe Griffin built upon a partnership with Curamericas Global that she originally initiated and became involved with due to her personal interest. Curamericas is a Raleigh-based organization that works to ensure women and children across the globe have access to the healthcare and resources they need to thrive.  

Chloe, along with senior Vibhav Nandagiri, spearheaded an initiative for Cary Academy students to pack 1,000 PPE kits this spring to benefit the members and friends of La Semilla, a Latinx faith community in Durham. Chloe and Vibhav saw the project through from its inception. This opportunity not only provided them with the chance to reflect upon the inequities that exist regarding access to PPE and other necessities during the pandemic but allowed them to practice their networking, community partnership building, and communication skills while doing direct service.  

Cary Academy students engaged in the process of service learning—which incorporates stages of preparation, action, reflection, and demonstration—through various service initiatives in both divisions experience authentic engagement with the community at large, their neighbors, and each other. Service learning provides students with opportunities to participate in dynamic learning experiences that can be transformative in the way they view themselves, their school, and the broader community.  

Admittedly, this may feel risky at times, and in many ways that is the point—where some of the most exciting growth and learning happens. Service requires that students develop greater self-awareness as they consider issues of equity, privilege, and opportunity through engagement in the community. We know that our students are up for the challenge and we support and applaud them as they lean into that discomfort to learn, to grow, and ultimately, together, hopefully help make our world a better place.  

Written by Maggie Grant, Service Learning Director

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Ellie McMahon '21


Senior’s passion for literacy, community, earns Gold Award

April 15, 2021

Congratulations to Ellie McMahon ’21 for earning the Girl Scouts of America’s prestigious Gold Award. The Gold Award is the highest accolade conferred by the Girl Scouts, awarded to fewer than seven percent of Girl Scouts after completing a minimum of 80 hours of service on projects that make a sustainable change in their communities and around the world.

McMahon—who serves as the leader of DELTA Service Club’s Children’s and Education Committee—is a strong proponent of early childhood literacy having learned of its immeasurable impact.  Associated with the development of critical thinking skills and with fostering a lifelong love of learning, early childhood literacy often translates to a profoundly better quality of life. Despite its importance, however, youth in lower-income communities often lack easy access to books and reading opportunities.

“As a kid, I read so much; it was so critical to who I have become. There are people who just don’t have the same chance I had to read but would if they could. I wanted to share with these underserved communities something that was so important to me growing up. The impact of reading grows so much over time, so starting early is really important,” beams McMahon.

When it came time to choose the way her Gold Award project would support the community, it seemed only natural to focus on literacy. McMahon devised a program to collect books from the community to provide reading materials and reading opportunities for children served by Learning Together and WAKE Up and Read, two Triangle-area organizations that provide high-quality, equitable, and inclusive educational opportunities for young children and adolescents.

Beginning in November 2019, McMahon organized a series of donation drives asking for gently-used books for preschool-aged readers. That first book drive collected more than 300 books from the Cary Academy community. Had things gone according to plan, McMahon would have visited the students at Learning Together in the early part of 2020 to distribute books and read with the children, but the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic dashed such hopes. Not wanting to let the children down, Ellie quickly rethought her project to ensure that the children would still benefit from reading with her, but from a safe distance.

Ellie McMahon '21 with books during the book drive

“I was only about halfway through the project when the pandemic hit. At first, I didn’t know what to do – I hadn’t completed any of the goals I set out to do. So, I ended up making a YouTube channel where I would read the books. In addition to Learning Together, I shared the channel with a bunch of other daycares and preschools so that even though they’re dealing with COVID, they can have this resource,” McMahon shares.

Admitting that adapting to COVID was the most challenging part of the project, McMahon credits the challenge of adapting to the pandemic with helping her broaden her outreach. When Cary Academy shifted to virtual learning, McMahon began reaching out to her neighbors via NextDoor, asking her local community to set books on their doorsteps for her to pick up. “I was surprised at how helpful people were. People are so willing to donate their time and their resources to you. My neighbors not only donated so many books, but they would also write a little note on the top of the box, ‘I hope that everything goes well; let me know if you need anything else,’ I thought that was sweet. I’ve collected nearly 700 books to this point; seeing this huge audience come together in support of this project was cool.”

McMahon’s hard work has made a difference. Kathy Peterson, Former Executive Director of Learning Together, was effusive in her praise, not only for her effort but her ability to recruit others to engage in service: “Ellie has been wonderful. Her multiple book drives have helped not only our kids but their siblings as well. She also recruited a group of friends to help with wrapping for our Holiday Hopes. They were a huge help — we had fewer volunteers due to COVID. When we had items for two families come in late, Ellie and her friends stepped in, and we were able to distribute everything on schedule.”

After McMahon graduates this spring, her project will live on, as part of DELTA Service Club’s commitment to the community, under the guidance of Service Learning Director Maggie Grant and the Center for Community Engagement. As an alum, McMahon plans to mentor the next group of DELTA leaders in serving young people across the Triangle, which Ms. Grant credits to both McMahon’s character and the values instilled by her time in Girl Scouts: “Ellie is committed to making a difference, especially in the lives of children in our community. She embodies Girl Scout values by her willingness to always lend a hand, and I am confident she will continue to make Cary Academy, as well as the Girl Scouts, proud as she moves into her next chapter.”

Congratulations, Ellie!

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager

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Backpack Buddies: A true community effort

September 12, 2019

Impactful service learning is a cornerstone of the Cary Academy experience. Addressing childhood hunger has long been an aim of sixth grade service learning.  

For years, the sixthgrade team has partnered with Interfaith Food Shuttle and Reedy Creek Elementary School for the Backpack Buddies program, which provides weekend food bags for students whose families are food insecure. Despite a strong effort and the best of intentions, however, as a community, we’ve never come close to collecting enough food to meet Reedy Creek’s needs.  

This year the sixth grade is determined to increase their impact. They’ve set their eyes on an ambitious new goal. 


That is the number of items our community needs to collect to fulfill our commitment to helping  address food insecurity at our partner school Reedy Creek Elementary.  

That’s 16,800 items that our 6th graders will need to solicit, collect, manage, and pack into 1,080 weekend food bags. That’s 30 bags a week for the remainder of the school year! 

So, how do we get there? 

It all starts with making the experience personal and relevant to our sixth-graders.   

To that end, to kick-off the project, Amber Simmons from the Interfaith Food Shuttle shared a dynamic presentation about food insecurity and the impact of the Backpack Buddies program. Through various activities, sixthgrade teachers continued to educate students on the breadth of local hunger. Students learned that one in five children in North Carolina face food insecurity. During the second week of school, students took an experiential learning field trip to visualize the proximity of Reedy Creek Elementary (only 1.1 miles away from Cary Academy) and to shop for the contents of one Backpack Buddies bag in local grocery stores. As we shopped, students discussed the nutritional value of different food choices, compared prices, and debated what the “best” snacks would be to send home with our neighbors. Already, the Backpack Buddies project has exemplified the benefits of learning through service by encouraging students to use a multi-disciplinary lens to study a real-world issue impacting many of our neighbors. Through this process, students are organically prompted to reflect on their place in the community and learn how to be socially responsible citizens. 

After a deep (and personal) dive into understanding the issue at hand, as is the CA way, the sixth-grade team and Service Learning Director put the students squarely in the driver’s seat. Given ownership over the project, they were tasked with revitalization of the food drive, including the development, marketing, and implementation of food collection and spearheading a larger community-education campaign to inspire giving 

Over the first few weeks of school, sixth-graders have been hard at work, collaborating in teams to design and pitch competing plans for educating our community, advertising the Backpack Buddies program needs, and motivating the community to action, while also thinking about the physical logistics of collecting and organizing the actual donations.  

A true community-effort, Cary Academy faculty and staff were invited to serve as guest experts and mentors, helping to guide students as they created their pitches for implementing a creative and effective food drive. And, on only their third week as sixth graders, twenty-five groups of four students each showcased their learning and innovation in their final pitch presentations. A panel of judges found it too difficult to decide on one pitch to implement; instead, components from every group’s plan will be utilized in the food drives throughout the year. 

This makes everyone winners—Cary Academy students learned what personal, relevant, and flexible learning looks like by practicing the personal success skills of curiosity, collaboration, communication, responsibility, and reflection. At the same time, our whole community benefits: CA students learn about a pertinent local issue, two local schools strengthen a partnership, and families face a little less insecurity about their next meal.  

The first Backpack Buddies Food Drive will be Monday, September 16 through Friday, September 20th. Specific food items needed are listed below.  

 You can help our sixth graders achieve their goal!  

 Contributions can be dropped off at the Middle School between 7:30 am and 4:00 pm. Pop-top cans are ideal. Please be sure food is not past the expiration date. 

  •  Individual shelf stable milk 
  • Canned meat or beans 
  • Canned vegetables 
  • Canned fruit 
  • Breakfast items (such as individual oatmeal and cereal) 
  • Snacks (healthy but tasty) 
  • Noodles (such as Easy Mac and Ramen) 
  • 100% Juice boxes 

Items needed





Written by Maggie Grant, Service Learning Director

Magazine of CA



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Exciting service learning changes are coming to the Upper School

May 30, 2019

Cary Academy’s mission of being a learning community dedicated to discovery, innovation, and collaboration often drives us to look for ways to improve on our practices. Propelled by both our mission and our strategic plan to make students’ learning more personalized, flexible, and relevant, we are excited to share a new vision and structure for service learning at CA.

You probably know that service learning has always been a part of CA, with both students and staff organizing opportunities to help people in our community with a range of needs. We have hosted and carried out blood drives, food drives, Giving Trees, and supported many wonderful community partners. In our new structure, much of these kinds of service will continue, but for many years we have sought ways to tie that good work to the broader learning that takes place in our curriculum and co-curricular programs.

This spring, student leaders in Beta and Key clubs, with guidance from Service Learning Director Maggie Grant and teachers Michelle Wendell and Jason Lingle-Martin, have been hard at work developing Delta Service Club, CA’s new in-house organization designed to engage students in external community service, learning, and reflection.

Delta Service Club will replace Beta and Key as the Upper School’s umbrella service club, and it will be home to various student-driven service learning projects and initiatives.

As rising senior Emma Brown puts it, “The club’s name is inspired by the dual definition of DELTA.”

Signifying change, as well as the location where water flows from a river through many channels into a larger body of water, it represents the way that Delta Service Club members will take a shared passion for community support fostered on campus out into the world in myriad ways. By engaging in the process of service learning, students will create change in the community and, importantly, also find change occurring in themselves.

The mission and intent of service learning at Cary Academy is to engage students in service that is impactful and transformative. We will

  • learn about social issues and community needs ;
  • seek out partnerships with community experts and organizations ;
  • engage in direct service, indirect service, and advocacy ;
  • actively reflect on service experiences, social issues, and privilege to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, our community, and our social responsibility ; and
  • treat all individuals with dignity, respect, and unconditional positive regard.

These changes are strongly tied to Cary Academy’s strategic plan.

The Service Learning program and Delta Service Club will encourage students to seek out partnerships with community organizations and intentionally nurture those relationships. Much of that work will be done in committees organized around themes, with each committee providing students opportunities to learn and practice collaboration, initiative-taking, and leadership.

Students will be challenged to learn from their neighbors and fellow community members and will consider new perspectives, all while examining their own. Through research, hosting community experts, and interpersonal interactions, students will identify community issues and needs, and collaborate with partners in direct and indirect service and advocacy activities.

Service learning incorporates multiple stages: preparation, action, reflection, and demonstration. Engaging in the service learning process through Delta Service Club will facilitate authentic engagement between students, the community, and each other. It will allow students to engage in dynamic learning experiences that can be transformative in the way they view themselves, their school, and the broader community.

Even as the strategic plan was in development a few years ago, we understood that authentic engagement would sometimes mean that students would be called on to step outside their comfort zones. Service learning may feel risky at times—it requires that students develop greater self-awareness as they consider issues of equity, privilege, and opportunity through engagement in the community. Ultimately, this is what we hope for our students at Cary Academy and what we know they are capable of.

All students are invited to participate in Delta Service Club and other service learning initiatives at CA. We hope you will join us!







Written by Maggie Grant, Service Learning Director

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April 18, 2019

Members of the Community Engagement Class tend the community garden at Alliance Medical Ministry in Wake County.

How do students at a private school understand and respond to the critical needs in their community? One way a group of us tried to break out of our CA “bubble” was in an innovative class that began this year. 

In January 2018, Dr. McElreath offered the junior class the opportunity to create a new Community Engagement class at our school, and he said we could choose the topic we wanted to explore. Five of us met weekly until we eventually chose the broad but important theme of poverty and inequality in Wake County.  

During Discovery Term, we met with experts from academia, nonprofits, and governmental agencies to learn more about this issue. At the beginning of this school year, using the knowledge we amassed during DT and with 4 new classmates, we split up into 4 subtopics: inequalities in housing, criminal justice, healthcare, and education.  

Throughout the year, we continued researchingidentifying major problems and potential solutions to these pressing matters. By January, we presented some of our ideas for improving inequalities to students, parents, and some of the experts we had interviewed earlier. We still hope to speak with some decision-makers in government and corporate settings before we’re through! 

This last trimester, however, we have mostly shifted into advocacy and volunteer work. We’ve identified several organizations working hard to alleviate inequalities, and we’ve spent time learning from and supporting folks at Habitat of Wake County, the Alliance Medical Ministry, and a phenomenal preschool called Learning Together.  

Learning Together’s mission is to “meet the developmental, educational, and health needs of young children of all abilities.” Primarily serving lower socioeconomic individuals with a variety of learning differences, Learning Together bridges the gap between where students are and where they need to be, making their matriculation into Wake County Schools with their age-peers possible and successful. This past year, 27 of their 32 students who finished the pre-school were able to begin regular kindergartens in Wake County with their friends. This is an incredible place!  

LT’s work addresses successfully some of the essential inequities we have been studying in education and healthcare, and they do so with many children in families that are housing insecure. In ways that may seem less immediate, their work may even prevent their students from ever becoming involved in the criminal justice system.  

We’re so impressed by Learning Together that we have joined an effort to support the school’s Bridge Gala fundraiser on May 9. If we are successful, we will help Learning Together families maintain access to healthy food this summer. Without our help, LT may have to shut down from June to August, depriving children of their most consistent source of healthy meals 

By the way, you can help!  If this school’s mission and results impress you like they did us, we hope you will learn more and contribute to this effort 

And if you can, we hope you will join us for the Gala on May 9!  


Alisha, Grace, Izzy, Jaishree, Leksi, Madi, Mesha, Michael, Ryan, & Dr. McElreath  

The Community Engagement Class 

Written by Alisha, Grace, Izzy, Jaishree, Leksi, Madi, Mesha, Michael, Ryan, & Dr. McElreath

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