MAHOPAC, N.Y.— When Mahopac Middle School student Jenna Nolan died tragically while swimming in Lake Mahopac on June 20, 2014, she left behind not just a grieving family, but a heartbroken school community and town as well.
Now, under the auspices of Jenna’s mom, Cathy Nolan, and in conjunction with the students and staff at MMS and other like-minded parents, Jenna’s legacy will live on thanks to the JennaJackPack Project—a program that strives to help kids who have suddenly and tragically lost a parent or sibling.
The JennaJackPack Project began with the selfless act of kindness by a 13-year-old-boy. Johnny Bernardi was devastated by Jenna’s tragic loss. He knew Jenna and her younger brother, John.
“He wanted to do something and collaborated with his friend, Eoin Martin,” Cathy Nolan said.
With the help of his mother, Lana Bernardi, Johnny decided he would find a way to comfort Jenna’s brother in his time of mourning.
“Lana was the one who said to him, ‘What can you do?’” Nolan said. “She took them shopping and they put this huge basket together of John’s favorite treats, what I call kids’ comfort food. It made all the difference in the world. To this day John recalls it as the day he knew he was going to be OK. He knew his friends were thinking of him.”
Nolan says that Johnny Bernardi’s act of empathy had a tremendous impact on John. It connected John to his peers. It comforted him and provided a sense of hope. And for Johnny, putting the package of treats together gave him a sense of comfort and control.
It was with this in mind that the JennaJackPack Project (JJPP) began. The students at Mahopac Middle School have taken it upon themselves to raise the money and purchase backpacks and fill them with the “kids’ comfort food” as well as other items such as coloring books, nightlights, stress balls, journals and courage stones.
MMS principal Vince DiGrandi said the JennaJackPack Project provides the perfect synergy for programs the school has already embraced.
“We have a program called CARES. It has grown year to year and it’s basically when we see kids doing good things—going above and beyond.—they get recognized,” DiGrandi said.
In conjunction with CARES, this year MMS began another program called the Wingman Project, which was started by Ian Hockley, who lost his autistic son, Dylan, in the Sandy Hook tragedy.
“Dylan loved butterflies,” DiGrandi said. “The mindset is that Ian always had people who are looking out for him. A whole group of kids would help him throughout the day. [His father’s]thought was… the flap of a butterfly in China can change the weather in America. It’s the butterfly effect.”
So the Wingman Project, inspired by Dylan’s love of butterflies, encourages kids to help each other, like Dylan’s classmates helped him. And when one student helps another, it gets paid forward and has a domino-like effect—similar to the butterfly effect.
“To us, it was our CARES program 2.0,” DiGrandi said. “It is about developing student leaders in the building to look for other acts of kindness and for kids being ‘wingmen.’ It takes CARES to the next level because CARES is primarily teacher-driven. This is more kids looking at kids and it puts them in the driver’s seat.”
Wingman was rolled out last September and about 50 students began training to take part.
“Part of that training is they went into classrooms last week and gave a lesson on empathy,” DiGrandi explained. “They showed a video and started a dialogue on empathy.”
When Nolan approached DiGrandi about the JennaJackPack Project, the principal realized it would be a perfect tie-in to the empathy lessons at the core of the Wingman Project. Students could raise money to sustain JennaJackPack. So, the month of March was set aside to do just that.
“This will work really well for us,” DiGrandi said. “It is a tangible way of showing empathy because you are physically buying things for these backpacks that will go to kids who need them, so it made sense.”
The students taking part in the Wingman Project made a video explaining the JennaJackPack Project and how it would work. Each classroom will have an empty water jug—decorated by the kids—in which donations can be placed. There is a board on the wall where kids can post a cutout drawing of an item that’s needed, which coincides with the amount of their donation.
“We are looking for a dollar a week from each kid throughout the month of March,” DiGrandi said. “The entire student body is about 950 kids. So, a dollar a week per kid—that’s about $950 a week for four weeks, so we are looking at around $4,000.”
DiGrandi said the school hopes to create a fund for the money that’s not used to buy the JennaJackPack items and use those funds to bring in guest speakers. He noted that it was important that the students use their own money for the donations.
“it’s not, ‘Hey, mom, can I have a dollar?’” he said. “It should be their own money, money that they earned, so they see that it goes toward something useful.”
Seventh-grader Madeline McCrossen, 12, is taking part in the Wingman program and was part of the video they made to roll out the JennaJackPack Project.
“I think it’s a very good thing because it will help a lot of people who go through something so tragic,” she said of JennaJackPack. “It’s a good thing to be part of and it was a lot of fun. It was great to be part of something that was so important.”
The “Jack” part of JennaJackPack, refers to a 14-year-old boy from Bedford who died from a brain tumor in 2012.
“Lana [Bernardi] reached out to his mom, they live in Bedford, to see if they wanted to get involved and we got their support and blessing,” Nolan said. “Things happen that are tragic, but if we can give back the comfort we received, we can help young children through a devastating time in their lives. Our family wants to return the love and support that was given to us.”
The backpacks aren’t reserved for just Mahopac residents—it’s for wherever Nolan and her volunteers see a necessity throughout the region. They have given out 15 backpacks so far and that’s expected to grow.
“We are going into schools in Putnam and Westchester,” she said. “We are growing and wherever we go people say, ‘Yes, this is a tremendous need.”
St. James School in Carmel took on the project in February and Nolan said Yorktown is next.
“We are also meeting with Carmel [school district officials] and we have two central Westchester schools doing JennaJackPack now as well,” she said.
Nolan said she thinks Jenna would be pleased with what is being done in her name.
“Jenna was a very empathetic young person,” she said. “When Sandy Hook happened, she couldn’t sleep because she wanted to help them so much. This does reflect who Jenna was as a person. And this is an amazing community and we can’t thank them enough.”