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6-23-21 — Ally Project Inspires Students to Think Outside the Box

June 23, 2021 ~ A commitment to helping others, a passion for education and a dream to make a positive impact on kids who are fighting serious illness – that is the legacy of The Ally Project. A partnership between the Olathe Public Schools Future Educators Academy (FEA), Children’s Mercy and the Kauffman Foundation, The Ally Project was inspired by former Olathe East High School and FEA student Ally Baier, who was diagnosed with glioblastoma cancer as a child and passed away in May 2020. The Ally Project is a way for future teachers to provide educational support to children just like Ally who are fighting cancer or facing extended hospitalization. It is a project that Ally herself helped build.

“The Ally Project started when Olathe student Ally Baier was accepted into FEA,” said Shelley Staples, 21st Century Future Educators Academy facilitator. “When Ally was undergoing treatment as a ninth grader in the FEA program, she shared with me that this program would not only give kids a chance to be educated, no matter how sick they are, but that it also would feel good to know people are still being educated even if they're in the hospital.”

Through The Ally Project, students in the FEA program provide tutoring and mentoring at Children’s Mercy in combination with the full-time teachers on staff at the hospital. Last school year, due to COVID-19, the program was not able to continue in its traditional structure, but that did not prevent Olathe students from giving back to those in need.

“With COVID-19, all of our tutoring sessions were canceled and there were several changes to how education looked in general with the switch to remote learning,” Staples said. "Ally passed away in May 2020 and I wanted to honor her legacy by continuing the project in some way. I thought about Ally and how, oftentimes, people would gift care packages with food to patients. We decided to make these, but instead of food, include learning activities to reach out to students and let them know they are being thought of while also improving their learning.”

Staples challenged her class to design their own “learning boxes” to share with students during the 2020-21 school year. Each box featured eight activities to align with the multiple intelligences theory, as defined by Howard Gardner. The theory suggests that there are eight distinct types of intellectual competencies that individuals may possess including naturalist, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, interpersonal, intra-personal, linguistic and spatial.

“I first piloted the learning boxes with our seniors and wanted to stretch their creativity while challenging them,” Staples said. “I told them they could pick any theme and include eight different activities. In FEA, we focus a lot on making sure all students are successful and that students have different strengths and intelligence. By making a box with lots of different activities, a patient would hopefully find some they would enjoy.”

From a kindness-themed learning box including activities like painting kindness rocks and writing thank you notes, to a Harry Potter-themed box that combined the magical world of fiction with real-world learning — there were activities and themes to meet the needs of any learner. For Staples and her FEA students, being able to honor Ally and continue to make a positive impact on the community, despite COVID-19, made all the difficulties of a trying year worthwhile.

“We love Ally Baier and we love helping kids,” Staples said. “With COVID-19, everyone's lives were disrupted, and school has been changed forever. Many of us had a very small social bubble and this left many children in the hospital isolated and without peers. The Ally Project is about making sure every child has an ‘Ally,’ and that shouldn't ever change. We knew this is something Ally would have enjoyed, and I think the students really enjoyed getting to be creative. This required a lot of thinking outside the box and it was really cool to see the themes and how they made each activity work.”

For more information on FEA, or to apply for the program, visit the program web page.