Mrs. Jacqueline Ludka assigned three books for this past summer's reading to her senior honors English class at Pleasant Valley High School: "Frankenstein," "The Bonesetter's Daughter" and "Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist."
Never did she or her 15 students imagine that one of those books would have a life-changing impact on them.
But one book did.
It was Michael J. Fox's "Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist," released in the spring of 2009.
The book recounts the past decade, when Fox retired from a booming acting career because of worsening symptoms of Parkinson's disease, for which he was diagnosed in 1991. He disclosed his condition to the public in 1998.
Fox reached stardom in his role of Alex P. Keaton on the sitcom "Family Ties" (1982-89) and as Marty McFly in the "Back to the Future" trilogy (1985-90). He semi-retired from acting while appearing in his award-winning lead role in "Spin City" in 2000, due to the Parkinson's.
He has become an active advocate for research to finding a cure. He made a resolution to engage with the world rather than withdraw.
Fox's book is about a journey of self-discovery and reinvention, and a testament to the consolations that protect him from the ravages of Parkinson's.
"For each novel, there was a different assignment and they had to check in over the summer on an online discussion board. We usually discuss the novels they've read within the first month of school," says Mrs. Ludka.
She says that the whole concept of the program is to pick one novel all three grade levels of 10th, 11th and 12th grade honors English classes could share in and learn from each year. This year the shared book was "Always Looking Up."
"We chose this book to commemorate our reading experience of Fox's book to help communicate the message of ongoing optimism and human potential, to tell our audience that anyone can make a difference by always looking up," says Ludka.
"Every year our honors English class does a project connected to a book we've read. In 10th grade we read 'Black Like Me' by John Howard Griffin. We did a 10-15 minute documentary on social injustice. In 11th grade we read 'A Whole New Mind' by Daniel H. Pink about marketing in the new age. So we made a mock product of hair growth and we developed ways to market it. But after we read 'Always Looking Up' we knew we wanted our project to be something to help others," says senior Angela Rodriguez, a student of Ludka's.
"Originally, the students saw it as summer work and a large project, but once the project was determined, they loved it more than any other work," adds Ludka.
The students knew Fox was a guy with Parkinson's disease who guest starred on one episode of the television show "Scrubs" and was the star in the "Back to the Future" movies. So they thought maybe they would make a donation for Parkinson's research. But Mrs. Ludka thought they should look for something closer to home.
The 15 seniors tossed around different ideas and liked the one of helping a food pantry.
"My grandmother knows the originators, Sue and Jerry Reynolds, of The Follow Me Foundation in Stroudsburg. I've been volunteering there for five years. I suggested we try to help them," says Meagan Fitzgerald.
The rest of the class loved the idea.
The Follow Me Foundation is a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) organization, primarily a food pantry serving 3,400 families throughout Monroe County. Food is distributed two Wednesdays of every month. It tries to provide healthy, balanced meals. Besides food, it also offers clothing, educational and spiritual opportunities "to inspire and provide life-affirming values to those who need them most."
Currently it is located at 50 Storm St. in Stroudsburg in a 400 sq. ft. room. It will be losing that space very soon and is in need of a larger space.
Sue and Jerry Reynolds spoke to the students about The Follow Me Foundation, telling them that they will be helping a lot of people in Monroe County.
"As they were talking to us, I got this overwhelming feeling that I had to help them," says senior Jonathan Gabilanes. "By doing this, we could be helping kids in our own school district. That gives me a great feeling."
The class had picked the "who" of their good deed. Now all they had to do was come up with the "what," "when," where" and "how."
Brainstorming, they agreed to three key objectives for the project: Raising awareness; hands on volunteering; raising funds.
They decided to organize a fundraiser in the form of a dinner on Jan. 9 at the PVHS cafeteria with a silent auction to raise funds and a formal presentation in the auditorium to help raise awareness of the need of local food pantries.
"The students became more inspired by Fox as the project continued and grew. They took his words and put them into action and that got them going," says Ludka.
"When we started the project, I could never have fathomed where this would all take us. I've talked to state representatives and senators and their office personnel. I never dreamed we would have got this far with the project," says Meagan.
"We met with Tim Kelly, the director of United Way of Monroe County. He was great. He spoke to us as if we were adults. The guidance these people gave us was just great. We talked to people we never would have otherwise. They gave us contacts," adds Angela.
Through networking, they managed to have everything needed for the event donated, like receiving a $500 check from PA State Rep. Mario Scavello.
Vince Shiro of a Japanese restaurant on 611 volunteered to make the Rosemary Chicken and the sauce for the ziti. Other donations for the buffet of seasoned potatoes, broccoli, salad, refreshments, baked goods and edible fruit arrangements have all been donated, through the efforts of Bob Madsen, PVHS Life Skills teacher.
As of Thursday before the event, they had raised $8,000 worth of donations.
And they were hoping for one more donation.
Fox learned of the students' endeavors through his office. He has a person who searches Google every day to see if his name is mentioned anywhere and came across an article in a newspaper about the benefit. His office contacted Mrs. Ludka and emailed her that Fox was very touched by what the students were doing because of reading his book. During class a few days before the benefit, Mrs. Ludka phoned Fox's personal secretary, Nina, and the class listened in to the conversation on speaker phone.
The class had hoped that it would have been possible for Fox to make a live phone message for the evening of the benefit or if he could make a donation of a signed copy of his book for the silent auction. Nina told the class she didn't think Fox would be able to make the message because of scheduling conflicts but was sure that a book could be donated for the event. Ludka also asked if she thought Fox would be able to visit the class sometime. Nina said that he was pretty busy right now because he has a new book coming out in the spring but she would forward on the request.
"It's all been very overwhelming. I can't wait for it to be over to see what we accomplished. It's been stressful but so worth it. We're hoping to get recognition for the organization and hopefully a new building for them," says Meagan.
Saturday night's benefit was a sold-out event, with all 200 tickets gone. They sold 150 tickets and 50 tickets were given free to clients of The Follow Me Foundation. They raised $6,200 to date. And a copy of Fox's autographed book was auctioned off for $125.
Opening remarks were given by Mrs. Ludka and Dr. Douglas Arnold, superintendent of PVSD.
"The kids did a great job. We're really proud of them. They made a practical application of what they learned in the classroom and applied it to the community. It all boiled down to self-discovery, self-realization and selflessness," says Dr. Arnold.
Speakers at the benefit were Tim Kelly, director of United Way of Monroe County, the founders of the Follow Me Foundation, Sue and Jerry Reynolds, Grace Gunnels, teen vice chairman of the board of Teen Works, Michael Carroll, Pa. State Representative (D), a representative for Mario Scavello, Pa. State Rep., Suzanne McCool, Monroe County Commissioner, and John Siptroth, Pa. State Rep. John Gress, principal of PVHS gave the closing remarks.
Meagan Fitzgerald says that Saturday went beautifully, from the superb dinner to the silent auction raising lots of money, with some items reaching as high as $275.
"I really can't imagine it being any more perfect."
She says that each of her classmates spoke at the presentation "with elegance" and the speakers spoke with pride for "what we had done and with confidence for what we'll continue to do."
The class received a resolution from Pa. Senator Bob Mellow's office and plaques from both the House of Representatives and the Follow Me Foundation founders, the Reynoldses.
"We cannot express how grateful we are for the amazing job Mrs. Ludka's Senior English Honors class did for The Follow Me Foundation. They truly exemplify the meaning of greatness and compassion. We look forward to continuing to work with these and other fine students in the future to bring hope to all those that God sends to us for help. God Bless them all," says Deacon Jerry and Sue Reynolds.
Deacon Reynolds hopes their actions will be a domino affect and bring awareness to the community.
"At the end of the evening, frankly I couldn't believe it was finally over. I know that I've said to myself 100 times over how I couldn't wait for January 10 to be here, but now that it has gone and passed, I miss being stressed out and overwhelmed. This project has been my main priority for the past three months, and although it's a shame for it to be over, I can't wait to do more," says Meagan.
Tracey Smith, another member of the senior honors English class also thought the event was very successful.
"Throughout the night everyone told us how organized the event was. We sold all of our raffle tickets and the presentation was very eye-opening to people because we had videos as well as politicians and others speaking. By the end of the event, I finally saw how much of a difference 15 teenagers made for the Follow Me Foundation.
"We spent so much time on this project and worked very hard to make the benefit a success, and all of the work paid off. The class felt very accomplished when we received a standing ovation during the presentation at the end of the night," says Tracey.
Another highlight of the night was when the class spoke to actress Cloris Leachman by phone before the event started.
While they were setting up for the event, one of the history teachers at PVHS, Mr. Bruce H. Smith, told them that Cloris Leachman, wanted to speak with the class because he had been telling her about their dedication to the food pantry. He knows Leachman because she is starring in a film he wrote and directed, "The Fields," which will be coming out next year in theaters. Mr. Smith had donated some things from his film signed by Cloris Leachman for the silent auction. He called her and the class spoke with her on the phone so she could hear about their work.
"She said she was amazed at our dedication with the food pantry and the class was stunned to be talking with her," says Tracey. Just what was the impact that Fox's book "Always Look Up" had on the 15 seniors in the honors English class?
"It gave the class the initiative to not care about a project grade and just work hard to help out this caring food pantry help out others in our community. The book also helped me realize how by just spending a little bit of time and just asking your community, a lot can happen to support a cause. Michael J. Fox wanted his readers to be inspired to volunteer and be optimistic about a cause, and the class listened to him and started helping out the Follow Me foundation. Even after the class is over, everyone in the class is planning to continue on with the project and continue volunteering for the food pantry," says Tracey.
"Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist" has shown me that doing something like this, that has such an enormous impact, is good for the soul. These kinds of projects bring communities together, and help to breed optimism and friendship. I feel so accomplished to know that my 14 other classmates, my teacher, and I have done so much for a local food shelter that I have been involved with for years. The fact that I was able to bring forward a foundation like the Follow Me Foundation to 15 other pairs of eyes is breathtaking, and I cannot wait to continue on with them and do so much more," says Meagan.
"I am so very very proud of the students," says Mrs. Ludka. "As their teacher, I'm proud to know that I opened their eyes to their potential as human beings and their power to make a difference. They learned how to work with each other on a professional basis, how to carry themselves with respect, dignity and authority, how to take an idea and make it grow into something that blossoms beautifully and how to truly care about someone else's suffering."