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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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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GivingTuesday 2020

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Make an impact on GivingTuesday

November 12, 2020

GivingTuesday. The global day of giving. After Black Friday purchases and Cyber Monday orders, GivingTuesday provides an opportunity for us to pause, reflect, and give back to those around us. This day has become a day showing strong support for non-profits around the globe, including schools. Here at CA, though, we choose to use this day to look outside our campus, come together, and support our local community. 

Last year, as a community, we provided more than 200 in-kind donations to the Diaper Bank of North Carolina. Our students, teachers, and staff brought in disposable diapers, feminine hygiene products, baby wipes, and adult incontinence items to support the local non-profit. I also sported an inflatable baby costume during Middle School drop-off.  

This year, we are thrilled by the leadership taken on by three of our juniors – Sanjna Jotwani, Folu Ogundipe, and Neha Sharma – to connect with, learn about, and spearhead the efforts to support a local non-profit, Haven House. Cary Academy has partnered with Haven House for various endeavors in the past, but thanks to the passion of our students, we are thrilled to officially partner with them to drive support for local youths on GivingTuesday.  

I have so many incredible things to say about the leadership and passion shown by our students, but instead, I would rather let them tell you, in their own words, why this is important to them and how everyone can be helpful. 

The stars truly aligned when it came to our opportunity to partner with Haven House. Dr. McElreath, CA’s Experiential Learning Director, is friends with a member of Haven House’s team, and they introduced us to one of their new initiatives: The TeensHelpingTeens program. We were immediately interested, as the idea of being able to make an impact as a student had great appeal. As much as we appreciate the support from the adults around us, we loved the idea of being able to drive these efforts on our own – especially for others our age.  

Haven House is a local organization focused on aiding teens and young adults who are experiencing homelessness. Youth homelessness may be caused by a variety of reasons: some are experiencing crisis at home due to abuse, family conflict, poverty, or inequitable access to housing. Some have been in foster care and, for myriad reasons, leave without a stable place to call home. Others are navigating mental health challenges and do not have access to the necessary resources needed to thrive. Whatever their situations, Haven House provides a safehaven for youth—a place where they can find the freedom to realize their full potential 

As the holidays are approaching, it’s not only a time to reflect on the privilege that many of us at Cary Academy have, but it’s also an opportunity for us to use that privilege to help others.  

Haven House fills a crucial need in our community, and we are beyond excited to be able to help them in any way we can. Sanjna, Neha, and I see how truly similar we are to those being helped by Haven House, and how things that are entirely outside of our and their control have led us down such markedly different paths.  

This year, Haven House is not just asking us to donate to those teens and young adults. Instead, they are requesting donations to their TeenStore. At the TeenStore, teens can “shop” and give gifts to their own parents and legal guardians to show how grateful they are for them. It is a beautiful way for us to use our privilege to spread holiday cheer to not only these teens, but their whole families.  

Many of us have never second guessed our ability to show our gratefulness to our families through gifts, yet so many cannot. We do not want to only recognize this; we want to act on it and empower Haven House youth to express their gratitude to those that have supported them.  

To that end, Haven House has put together an Amazon wishlist comprised of small gifts, $10 – $20, that they need to stock their TeenStore. With a few clicks, you could transform the holiday season for another youth. 

Will you join us in sending some joy their way? The Wishlist is open and accepting purchases now. We will continue to promote and support this cause through the week of GivingTuesday. If you’d like to participate with us, you can purchase directly from Amazon, or you can bring your gift to campus on December 1st or 3rd to be delivered to HavenHouse  

We hope that you will consider using Haven House’s Amazon wishlist and sponsoring a gift to ship to them. And we thank you for joining in us in our gratitude this season.

With gratitude,  
Sanjna, Folu, and Neha 

Written by Ali Page, Director of Development

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CA Senior helps hurricane-devastated community

September 3, 2020

Many of us would be forgiven for feeling that Hurricane Florence, which roared through North Carolina two years ago this month, was in the far distant past — especially during a pandemic. Anna Newman ’21 would not let current events distract her from helping Ivanhoe, NC, which was devastated by Florence’s floodwaters.

Earlier this year, Newman, whose family roots in Ivanhoe reach back over generations, began planning a furniture drive to provide relief to families who are still rebuilding their lives and their homes.

“The longterm need for recovery should not be forgotten. Twenty percent of the people in Sampson County are living in poverty; many do not have flood insurance and therefore still struggle to refurnish their homes. I thought that having a furniture drive in Ivanhoe would be one way to give back to the community,” explains Newman.

Early in 2020, Newman began working with CA’s Center for Community Engagement to ensure that her efforts helped as many people as possible. Initially, the furniture drive was to take place on April 4, but those plans were derailed as a result of COVID-19. However, the delay allowed Newman to increase the impact of her service efforts, beyond only accepting donating furniture.

“This summer, I raised money for the drive, by washing cars in my neighborhood, which helped pay for furniture purchases at the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store.”

The rescheduled (and much bigger) furniture drive took place this past Saturday in Ivanhoe. The event, planned to last four hours, had distributed most of the furniture within 45 minutes, providing roughly 70 pieces of furniture to 20 Sampson County families in need.

Noting the assistance from her parents, who helped Ivanhoe residents load furniture into cars and trucks, Newman adds, “we gave priority to people who had water inside their homes and lost all of their belongings; after that, the furniture was open to anyone in the community in need of new furniture. The recovery is far from over, and this furniture drive was a way to help people still in need.”

Anna Newman during the furniture drive
The Newman family (at left) and residents of Sampson County, NC.

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

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Katie Todd


Katie Todd takes her vehicle on a spin for good

April 7, 2020

Mondays at 9:30 am aren’t typically a good time to volunteer in the calendar of Katie Todd, your CA Fund Director. But, with schedules a lot more flexible these days, Katie had the chance to join dozens of other volunteers on Monday, April 6, to support Meals on Wheels in Durham. Staff and volunteers loaded cars with boxes full of a week’s worth of frozen meals for MOW clients. Moving to once-a-week deliveries is intended to keep both seniors and volunteers safe.

With her meals on board, Katie drove to her delivery destination, having the chance to deliver meals to eight residents of a historic apartment building in downtown Durham. Each interaction included smiles, well wishes, and gratitude. Katie hopes to continue delivering meals each Monday while her schedule allows. Check out her message above on how she is participating in #CAGivesForGood. Thank you, Katie, for bringing nutrition and smiles to residents in our community!

We want to lift up all of the generous, kind, compassionate acts that Cary Academy folks are doing each and every day. There is no act too small to acknowledge and celebrate! In a sentence or two, let us know what your family is doing to support our community here.

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

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CA turns out to support Wrenn House on Family Service Day

December 10, 2019

More than 50 members of the CA community turned-out to support Wrenn House during the PTAA’s Family Service Day, on December 7. Volunteers accomplished many tasks, including spreading mulch, creating stone pathways, planting more than 30 plants and shrubs in planters and beds, raking over 80 bags of leaves and yard debris, cooking several meals, and stocking the Wrenn House freezer with additional meals. Thank you to all that made this day a success.

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On GivingTuesday, help make generosity go viral

November 26, 2019

Holidays in the United States center around the values of giving and gratitude. But, these values can often be eclipsed by the lure of Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, shifting our focus from the needs of our community to our own personal wants.

Fortunately, seven years ago a group of do-gooders in New York set out on a mission to elevate philanthropy once again. #GivingTuesday is “a global day of giving fueled by the power of social media and collaboration.”

On Tuesday, December 3, 2019, Cary Academy is calling on our community to help make generosity go viral across our campus. We are partnering with the Diaper Bank of North Carolina, a nonprofit committed to ensuring every family in North Carolina has access to basic necessities to support their dignity, health, and quality of life.

This is not the first time we’ve worked with this vital agency – during Hurricane Florence relief efforts in 2018, many CA families contributed diapers, adult incontinence items, baby wipes, and more to reduce the burden on families whose lives had been upended by the natural disaster. In fact, both Middle and Upper School students have dedicated their time to supporting the Diaper Bank’s efforts, from sorting at the warehouse to spreading awareness about the nonprofit’s mission and vision.

The need for these supplies is still as urgent today. In particular, the Diaper Bank of NC requests disposable diapers in sizes 4 and 5; adult incontinence items; feminine hygiene products (tampons, sanitary napkins); and baby wipes. Good news: even if your package of diapers/products is open, the Diaper Bank of NC can still accept and distribute the items! 

Why is Cary Academy choosing to spotlight another nonprofit organization on GivingTuesday rather than ask for gifts to support financial aid, enhanced learning experiences, and other mission-aligned activities? 

Because that’s why GivingTuesday is all about. This is an opportunity for students, families, employees, and supporters to engage in community-centric philanthropy. This is a time where we can put into action the lessons of our Center for Community Engagement: how can we take actions of all sizes to build more equitable, resilient communities? It starts by taking care of people in the ways most needed. So, we’re seeking to be responsive to the Diaper Bank of NC and asking you to be a part of this one-day blitz of giving. 

How can you participate? On Tuesday, December 3, bring your donations to campus between 7:00am – 5:00pm. Drop-off bins will be available outside the Middle School, Upper School, and Administration Building. You can bring items to the Development wing at any point. 

Items Needed: 

  • Disposable diapers (sizes 4 and 5 in greatest need) 
  • Adult incontinence items 
  • Feminine hygiene supplies (tampons, sanitary napkins) 
  • Baby wipes 

Here’s the bonus: Members of the Cary Academy community have each committed to donating $1 to the CA Fund for each Diaper Bank donation made in recognition of philanthropy! Not only will our GivingTuesday efforts extend to families across the great state of North Carolina, but your support will also generate resources that are invested in our service learning and work experience programs, which will keep our students engaged in relevant, urgent issues. 

The founders of #GivingTuesday believed that the social sector had the capacity to show more innovative leadership, creativity, and collaboration.” Cary Academy is a prime example of what can happen when these three intangibles come together for the greater good. This December 3, let’s recommit to these values in the spirit of creating change for the greater good. 


Written by Katie Todd, CA Fund Director

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Prom Dress Drive collects 70 dresses for a community in need

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Thanks to the CA community, the Center for Community Engagement received 70 prom dresses during the Prom Dress Drive, to help students in Robeson County who are still experiencing the effects of Hurricane Florence. Thank you for helping to make someone’s prom night special!

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March 13, 2019

The Triangle Debate League—a non-profit organization comprised of CA student peer-mentors and collegiate debate coaches—hosted their inaugural tournament on March 12th with students from Jordan, Hillside and Southern High Schools. CA Speech and Debate students came out in big numbers to support, judge, and make the event run smoothly. Founded at CA, TDL works to bring speech and debate to Durham and Wake county schools that don’t have the resources to otherwise support the activity. 

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Uncomfortable Magic