We Can Week goes online in Smyrna

Jesse Ruben, singer-songwriter from New York, was supposed to visit Smyrna School District last week for the third We Can Week, which challenges students to take on service learning projects. While students were home, Mr. Ruben led a virtual We Can Week, which included him reading stories, performing songs and answering questions. (Submitted photo)

SMYRNA — This year was supposed to be the biggest iteration of the New York-based singer Jesse Ruben’s community service program, We Can Project, for the Smyrna School District yet. Like many other things this past month, however, it was postponed as a safety measure due to COVID-19.

Despite that, organizers wanted the show to go on, even at a distance.

“One of the principals had the idea of, ‘Why don’t we just make it virtual?’” Mr. Ruben said in a phone interview last week.

The district created a Facebook page specific for the project and We Can Week played out online, as many students who were home from school tuned in to watch Mr. Ruben perform songs, read stories and answer questions.

The goal of the program is to bring people together to accomplish community service projects, Mr. Rubin said.

“When we’re all separated like this, that can be really challenging. But it’s been fun to see, especially for the younger kids, now that they’re home and they have time, what are some of their new ‘I Can’ projects? What are the ways they can be creative and express themselves?” he said.

The service learning program began with Mr. Ruben’s song, “We Can.”

He said the project happened organically, and he hadn’t set out to do a program like this. He first penned the song after he ran a marathon for the first time.

“I just wanted to inspire people to do crazy things that I always wanted to do,” he said.

A teacher heard the song and played it for students as a sense of inspiration. Mr. Ruben said he got help from educators to organize it into a program that schools could do throughout the year.

“I saw that it really fit a need that schools had of: how can we inspire our students, how can we get them thinking about pushing themselves and trying new things and encouraging them to keep going when they fail and all that stuff,” he said.

“For me, it’s so great because I love working with young people. I think it’s a really tough time to be a young person, especially right now obviously,” he said. “There were things that I wish people had told me, that weren’t my parents, when I was younger.”

How Mr. Ruben and Smyrna School District got involved was likewise organic.

Patrik Williams, superintendent of the district, said that in 2018 his daughter, Lauren, was a senior at Smyrna High School, completing her Educators Rising capstone project at Sunnyside Elementary School.

Around the same time, Mr. Williams and Lauren went to a concert in Philadelphia, where Mr. Ruben was playing.

“During his performance, he would talk to the audience, of course, and he mentioned the ‘We Can’ Project before singing that song,” he said. “After the concert, Lauren went right up to him and asked about getting him to come to Sunnyside as part of her capstone project. He agreed, so she and I spent that spring working with teachers and administrators to help us get it organized. It was a huge success.”

During last year’s version of the event, students spent the year working on “I Can” and “We Can” service projects that would support the schools, families and neighborhoods — “you name it,” Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Ruben visited each of the schools and the event culminated in a community concert.

The concert was free, but donations raised nearly $3,000 for the Smyrna-Clayton Boys & Girls Club, Mr. Williams said. That amount was matched by the state Boys & Girls Club organization, he added.

The plan was to do something similar this year, but with schools shut down and the state under a stay-at-home order, the week went online.

“We hope that this virtual version provides much needed support, engagement and affirmation for our students and our families. While it doesn’t replace our live, onsite program … it certainly gives our students the opportunity to interact with Jesse, tell him about their projects via comments he reads in real time and feel a sense of ‘normalcy’ during a difficult time for everyone,” Mr. Williams said.

He added that the week is a large part of the district’s emphasis on social-emotional learning for students.

“It does so much to build them up, cultivate self-confidence and connect them with one another,” he said. “This is all critical now more than ever.”

Throughout the week, Mr. Ruben live streamed every other day in the morning and evening.

“We know that physical distancing doesn’t mean social isolation, and this program speaks to the need for everyone to stay connected with one another for a common purpose,” Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Ruben said about 200 people tuned into the first live stream, but the video was shared many times and increased to thousands of views.

“That’s a way to bring people all together into one place, even though they can’t physically be in the same room,” he said.

Mr. Ruben said he is disappointed he wasn’t able to do the full We Can Week experience like they had intended, but this virtual version still helped him connect.

“To have a way to actually be able to be a part of the students’ lives a little bit — and also give the parents a bit of a break — has been really fun,” he said. “It’s just been a great experience, trying to take something that could be really bad and try to make it better — which is what the program is all about.”

Mr. Williams said Mr. Ruben’s virtual presence is just as impactful on the students.

“Jesse’s music and his student-centered, friendly personality lend themselves to positive mindfulness during a time when people are struggling to find their balance,” he said.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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