AGAWAM – “All I can say is, wow! We are so proud of you. You make us really proud. Keep up the good work,” School Committee Vice-Chair Shelley Borgatti-Reed said after hearing a presentation from Agawam Junior High School (AJHS) eighth-grade student Maddie Balzano, Project 351 2022 Ambassador for Agawam, at a meeting earlier this month.
Balzano, 14, has engaged with other eighth graders from across the state who, like her, want to make positive changes in the world. The 351 Project is a statewide nonprofit youth community service organization established in 2011. It provides eighth grade “ambassadors” from all 351 cities and towns across the state the opportunity to lead service projects in their communities benefiting different causes throughout their year of service.
The core values of Project 351 are kindness, compassion, humility and gratitude. Student Ambassadors are known for their openness of mind and heart, their respect for others, their enthusiasm and their passion to make a difference.
During her presentation of Balzano, AJHS principal Norm Robbins said she had a long history of positive changes at Agawam.
“Since the second year, she has been involved in several activities, such as the ‘Be Kind’ movement, where students have made signs that have been placed throughout the community.”
As a schoolgirl at Doering School, Robbins said Balzano joined the Kindness Club and was a morning welcome. Additionally, she made masks for health care workers during the pandemic and hats for newborns at Baystate Children’s Hospital.
“In short, Maddie is taking on all the challenges that will make our community an even better place to belong,” Robbins said.
In her brief presentation at the March 8 meeting, Balzano gave an overview of three service projects she will lead this year.
The first, a spring service project, is a clothing drive for Cradles to Crayons. The organization provides homeless or low-income children with the essential items they need at home, school, and play. Balzano will collect new or like-new clothes at AJHS in April for children in the birth to 12 years old.
“I will then work with the Westfield Ambassador to sort the items and bring them to the collection point in our area,” Balzano added. She will also be collecting books for her family to deliver to the Giving Factory (part of Cradles to Crayons) later this spring.
His second project will be a 9/11 tribute service to benefit the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund. A fall service project known as the “Race to End Hunger” – a drive to benefit local pantries – will be his last project before Balzano transforms his navy Project 351 t-shirt for an orange shirt. former students.
Prior to Service Projects, Balzano explained that Project 351 Ambassadors attended his Service Leadership Academy.
“It teaches us skills to use in our service projects and allows us to meet other service heroes and learn from their experiences,” she said.
At the academy, Ambassadors participated in an anti-bullying and anti-discrimination program run by the Boston Celtics called the Playbook Initiative.
“I am very happy to say that I was also one of 30 ambassadors chosen for a clinic at the Celtics Training Center for an extension of this training,” Balzano told the committee.
At the end of his presentation, Balzano answered questions from committee members. Wendy Rua, who called the presentation “wonderful,” asked about some of the service heroes she met at the academy.
Balzano replied that she started by meeting Gladys Vega, whom she called “an international service hero”. At age 9, Vega moved with her family from Puerto Rico to Chelsea, a suburb of Boston, where she witnessed the challenges faced by Latino residents in the United States.
The most recent service hero Balzano met was Matthew Slater, captain of the New England Patriots: “We learned about his experiences and how he tied his faith to his service.”
Responding to a question from Rua about how she shares information from her ambassador meetings, Balzano explained that ambassadors talk about what they have learned with their friends, who pass it on to their friends and family.
“We call it STW – ‘Spread the Word.’ added that it becomes “a spiral effect” as much of the information she learns at the academy also reaches many other people via STW.
Kerri O’Connor told Balzano that she “makes a huge difference” through her community service projects. “You learn so many skills and life skills. It will look great on your resume,” O’Connor said. She wanted to know if Balzano had the support of his friends for fundraisers or other events.
Balzano responded by saying that when the Spring Service Draft kicks in, there will be a team building effort. She said she focused on her best friends, family friends and other people she could trust to help her.
She has already asked several people who are on board – including two of her best friends; “they are so excited to help.”
Mayor William Sapelli, who chairs the school committee, congratulated Balzano on his presentation.
“You are very well placed and you express yourself well. You’re also very enthusiastic — and that will go a long way. You are a very positive person. We need more of that,” he told Balzano.
Project 351 is typically launched in Boston on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday weekend. Students complete many community service projects to honor the legacy of the late civil rights leader. The pandemic has resulted in the cancellation of the January in-person launch and training days for 2021 and 2022.