COLONIE — Of course, there are the three “Rs” of Reading, Riting and Rythmetic. At the South Colonie School District, though, the belief is a sound education also includes building character.
Character can mean different things to different people — you can throw in an infinity of situational influences too — but the philosophy adhered to by students in ICARE is universal: Integrity, Community, Accountability, Respect, Empathy.
On Friday, Jan. 19, at the Village of Colonie Rec Center, those principles were put to work with the fifth annual Chili Cookoff, with all proceeds going to Equinox and its domestic violence prevention/awareness program. Last year the proceeds, some $2,000, were donated to the Regional Food Bank.
Members of the town’s Fire Departments made up the brunt of the chefs, Fire Departments do take pride in their chili, but the Colonie Police Department had a pot brewing as did the Explorers Post.
Judges included Board of Education members, Sheriff Craig Apple, Supervisor Paula Mahan, Police Chief Jonathan Teale, Assemblyman Phil Steck, Julie Chapman, of Spectrum News, and others.
There were 14 pots of chili entered this year, more than 350 in attendance and nearly $3,000 was raised for Equinox.
“We are beyond happy with the turnout this year,” said an exuberant Colonie High senior and ICARE Co-President Meghan Pannone.
The panel of judges picked the chili made by the West Albany Ladies Auxiliary as best and the 2019 People’s Choice award went to Stanford Heights Fire Department.
It started in 2011, when morale was low in public education across the country and the budgetary restraints and cutbacks were impacting students and faculty at Colonie High School in a not so positive way.
So, Assistant Principal Thomas Kachadurian and five students who were having a difficult time fitting in with the other established clubs and groups, and who were perhaps feeling the ramifications of all negative energy more profoundly than some others, got together and started brainstorming ways to make things better at Colonie.
There were scores of adjectives tossed around and those were whittled down to five that just happened to lend themselves to a pretty nifty acronym: ICARE.
“From there we talked about how you can teach ‘integrity’ to someone, or how can you teach ‘community’ to someone or ‘accountability’ and we decided there were some common underlying concerns so we tried to turn them into positive ventures,” he said, such as homelessness and hunger issues and domestic violence. “There is no one way to teach character, we just want students to be reflective, and be a part of humanity, a part of the community. To get them to look beyond their own perspective.”
At its core — and perhaps at its beginning — the ICARE office gives kids a place to go when they need someone to talk to or just a place then can call home for a little while. Now, there are some 100 active members and it has an offshoot: the Kind. Human. Project. That program has a component akin to a Big Brothers Big Sisters program and older wiser students go into the elementary and middle schools to help out with homework or just talk to students considered by many as “at risk” and who might be unwilling to speak with an adult.
Kachadurian, whose father was an associate principal, health teacher and football coach at Colonie, said he writes about his experience and how the program has blossomed into such a success story on a blog that is read by education administrators across the country. He gets a kick out of getting a call from someone living in someplace like Colorado asking for advice on how to start an ICARE. But, he stressed, there is no set formula. It has to fit into each unique community based on what that community needs or wants.
“ICARE is a character education organization based in Colonie High School,” said Pannone, a four-year ICARE veteran who is headed to Binghamton University next year. “And we are on a mission to spread integrity, community, accountability, respect and empathy. So we take an organization like Equinox, and raise a ton of money while simultaneously teaching students in our elementary schools and middle school and high school about the issues surrounding domestic violence and how they can help.”
While the Chili Cookoff is one of the more high profile events ICARE does each year, the smaller things that often fly under the radar, are just as important — if not more so to the beneficiaries. For example, if a family is burned out of a home, ICARE goes on a mission to collect whatever necessities the family needs. Or, if a family is struggling for whatever reason, ICARE may go and help clean the house or collect things to get them through a tough time.
“From my perspective, it’s about building character,” said Superintendent Jonathan Buhner. “Of course, we want our kids to be successful academically, and ready to move on to a higher education, but we also want them to be good people, and active, productive members of the community. I really could not be prouder of these kids and the administrators who helped put it all together.”
For Colonie High School senior Bryan Grimes, his venture into ICARE started when he was a sophomore and his brother’s girlfriend was an officer in the program.
“I wanted to get involved with something and I didn’t know what it was so I started out with a smaller role, just like everyone else,” he said at the Chili Cookoff. “There is a lot of good people in ICARE. It gives us a sense of home, of having someone to talk to. And it teaches us leadership skills and skills like talking in front of people in a public setting. It prepares us for the real world, not unlike the school curriculum, but this also gives us hands on experience.”
There are about 100 students involved with ICARE, with some more active than others, but everyone steps up to work the Chili Cookoff and Raiderfest, the organization’s largest annual fundrasier for whatever cause they are working for that particular year.
“The kids put in a lot of work. And when you talk to people they are always so impressed with the job they do and how committed they are to the program,” said Assistant Superintendent Timothy Backus. “It’s a great group of kids and each year there are new kids coming in as kids graduate and what’s fun there are kids who graduated and are here as well.”
Those from the community volunteering their time at the Chili Cookoff were more than happy to do so. It not only helps out a worthy cause — and they get to show off their chili — but some take a more macro view of ICARE.
“Look at what this does for the kids. They are involved and they are motivated,” said Dominic Ricciardi, a member of the Fuller Road Fire Department Board of Directors. “You see the kids working like this, and you hope they are the ones who will be running America someday.”
Click on a photo below to view a slideshow of the rest.