Oak Knoll School Celebrates Thanksgiving by Practicing Gratitude, Helping Families in Need

Giving back to those most in need occurs year-round within the Oak Knoll School community and as Thanksgiving approaches, students are putting their “Actions, not words,” into motion to feed the hungry while learning about the importance of gratitude. 

With nearly 200,000 New Jersey children facing hunger each day, Oak Knoll’s students in both the Lower and Upper schools were busy this week with various activities on and off campus to better serve those most in need this Thanksgiving holiday.

The Upper School collected donations, raising $1,167 while the Lower School collected food items, for the Pierre Toussaint Food Pantry located in Newark, NJ – one of 20 MEND member food pantries within the (M)eeting (E)ssential (N)eeds With (D)ignity interfaith food pantry network in Essex County. MEND is the largest hunger relief network in Essex County and has been providing food to individuals and families in need since 1980. Oak Knoll estimates that their donations will help feed more than 300 families on Thanksgiving Day. 

“At Oak Knoll, we are always concerned about giving back to our communities, but we know that people’s needs are felt more deeply around the holidays,” said Michele Van Kalsbeck, OKS theology teacher and member of the campus ministry program. “Our students want to make sure that everyone, regardless of their circumstances, has a nice Thanksgiving meal this holiday.”

On Saturday, November 13, 2021, students volunteered at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in New Providence, NJ, to assemble approximately 150 Thanksgiving baskets for people in need of holiday meals through one of the Overlook Hospital Auxiliary Twigs  (volunteer groups that support Overlook, including high school groups). 

Oak Knoll’s Parents’ Association helped kicked off the busy school week with a Thanksgiving Family Mass on Sunday, November 14, which was attended by LS and US families as well as faculty, staff, administrators, and their family members.

Back on campus, students wrapped up a week-long fundraiser to collect winter coats for those in need at Bridges Outreach and the Salvation Army. 

Madeleine McKinney ’26 and Grace Bienstock ’26, student organizers of the coat drive said that the fundraiser is important to them because they want to help other people.

“We think that it’s important to give back to the community, especially around the times of the holidays,” said McKinney.

Other OKS classes also found ways to recognize the Thanksgiving Holiday by thinking of others. 

Student calligraphers in OKS Art Director Will Cardell’s organization, Scribes, penned approximately 150 hand-lettered Thanksgiving greetings to accompany the food baskets assembled for Overlook Hospital. The calligraphers who penned the cards include Iman Ali ’23, Courtney Coyle ’23, Sarah Maher ’23, Janet Pearce ’22 (Scribes President), Grace Sharp ’22, Teagan Kocaj ’22, and Siobhan Stack ’22. Additionally, the two drawings on the cards were designed by alumna Hayla Yanes ’16 and junior Emely Abreu ’23.

“This year, my calligraphy club, Scribes, and my older art students are focused on service,” said Cardell. “We are looking for outreach opportunities in which these students can share their talents with the school and local community. This Thanksgiving Day project is one of the first service projects that my students engaged in.”

Veronika Zavaleta-Tejeda, Chair of the World Language Program, and 9th grade class coordinator introduced a gratitude exercise during a class meeting. 

The exercise, “Be Grateful from A to Z,” where one student at a table said something they were grateful for starting with the letter “A”, then the next person continued this starting from the letter “B.” Students took group photos of their table once they finished the exercise and made a google slide project as their final project.

“The purpose of this activity was twofold: to serve as a bonding activity and to have students work together to find some commonalities about what they are grateful for,” said Zavaleta-Tejeda.

Down the hill in the Lower School, students in Kathleen Hoke’s third and fourth grade classes held a “Thankful Thursday” where they wrote what they were thankful and grateful for on the board in the morning.

Head of School Jennifer G. Landis shared research about gratitude to the Oak Knoll community during a school Thanksgiving prayer service held on Friday, November 19, in the Mother Mary Campion Center for the Performing Arts. 

“Many people over apologize and use apologies in places where they can use gratitude,” she said. “Instead, there is a practical way of practicing gratitude that can be powerful in a small way. For example, if you are talking to a friend or a family member about something that’s difficult in your life, you may find yourself apologizing for rambling on. In fact, you can put gratitude in the place of that apology and instead say ‘thank you for helping me work through this.’ Suddenly you’ve shifted this from apologizing for being human to instead thanking the person for being there for you. That is a powerful,” Landis said. 

Lower School students also participated in several activities leading up to the Thanksgiving Holiday where they learned about the importance of gratitude – an important character trait in the Lower School’s social-emotional curriculum Character Strong

On Monday, students wrote what they are thankful for about Oak Knoll School in chalk on the blacktop and on Tuesday students hung post-it thank you notes to lunch workers in the dining hall.

LS students took part in a recess challenge on Wednesday where students told all others in their grade what they were grateful for about them by the end of recess and, during homeroom on Thursday, classes made cards for Oak Knoll’s security officers and facilities team to say thank you. 

Lower School Counselor Melissa Nelson said that practicing gratitude is extremely beneficial to children. 

“Gratitude decreases stress, as well as reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression,” said Nelson. “It has been shown to improve immune systems and help people feel more satisfied with their lives and less materialistic. People who are grateful also tend to spend less time comparing themselves to others or feeling envious. Gratitude is such a simple, yet powerful way to help boost the positivity within our community, and by practicing it each day throughout our ‘week of gratitude’, we give the students a chance to understand how it works and feel the positive effects from focusing on the good all around them!”

oak knoll crest in gold