By Karen Zautyk
The sculptures have been constructed — and deconstructed. The canned goods have disappeared from Kearny High School and been delivered to food pantries and community food banks around the area. The students have turned their attention to other things, like graduation. But the memories, and the sense of service and accomplishment, linger on. And will for a very long time.
For the second year, KHS students participated in a project called Canstruction, a nationwide effort to both collect food donations and to raise awareness of hunger — around the world, in the United States and in their local communities.
Yes, there is hunger, even in thriving, exurbia. The fact that it is often hidden makes it no less a crisis for families that have difficulty putting food on the table.
Canstruction helps meet their needs, while providing a fun, and challenging and educational, project for participating schools.
The inaugural KHS program in 2012 brought in a total of 19,963 cans of food. The total for 2013 is 23,000 (and counting). The food items are either donated outright or purchased through monetary contributions, which this year totalled approximately $20,000, according to KHS Principal Al Gilson.
And, though centered on the school, the effort was community-wide. There are far too many participants- -businesses, clubs, organizations, individuals–to list here. But the May 29 edition of The Observer carried a thank-you ad from the Canstruction organizers naming them all. Among them were 45 area businesses, including Shop-Rite of Kearny, which is a premier sponsor.
Canstruction entails the design and building of structures and/or sculptures composed entirely of the canned goods. It all requires a bit of engineering, art and economics — and a lot of student energy and effort. Overseeing the KHS effort was teacher Melody LaRossa.
“Students worked with a budgeted amount of money for their projects and researched the best cans for color, size and price, utilizing sales whenever possible,” Gilson reported.
This year, the two main projects created were: A camera (using 8,800 cans) and Bob the Builder and his truck Scoop (5,145 cans).
Participating in Canstruction were 32 students from the Engineering Club, Mechanical Drawing and Architecture classes, Gilson said.
Also cited were the efforts of student volunteers from Rutgers Newark, who assisted in shopping for the food and serving refreshments to the KHS kids working on the Canstructions.
Paul Rogers, community co-chairperson of the overall project along with Julie Smith of Valley National Bank, explained that the Rutgers volunteers also make a final count of the cans, divide them into categories, box and label them and help deliver them. Members of the Kearny Fire Department and Police Department were among those helping collect the cans from, for example, Shop-Rite, and then deliver the items to the food banks.
This year, Gilson said, the 23,000+ cans were divided among five local food pantries for distribution to individuals and families in need.
It was Rogers, a retired KFD captain, who first approached KHS administrators last year with the Canstruction idea after seeing one of the national-project exhibits in New York.
Coincidentally, Gilson’s first encounter with Canstruction was also in New York, long before he was named KHS principal in late 2012.
“I had actually seen Canstuction years ago in Manhattan [Canstruction was launched in 1992]. I saw these amazing structures,” he recalled.
“When I took over at Kearny High School, I found out about the project they did here last year,” he told The Observer. “I thought, ‘Is this the same thing I saw 10 years ago in Manhattan?’ It was full circle to me; bizarre, to say the least.”
Bizarre in the good way strange coincidences are.
“Then I began to learn through the Optimist Club and other community members how all the different participants pulled together,” he noted.
Students learned to work together to overcome design challenges and issues; students also made new friends with some they may never have interacted with; and students had fun throughout the process of learning and helping others, KHS staff noted.
And what of next year? Kearny High’s Canstruction promises to be bigger and better than ever. But we are sworn to secrecy.
For more information about the national program, of which KHS is a recognized participant, visit http://canstruction.org.