ARMONK, N.Y. – One day a year, H.C. Crittenden Middle School conveys to its students just how big a difference one person can make in its annual “Power of One” day.
In its seventh consecutive year, that message was delivered with the help of a keynote address from author Mawi Asegdom, an Ethiopian civil war refugee who graduated from Harvard.
His story is a fascinating lesson in how people can make a difference -- from the will of his mother who walked for 10 weeks with three small children to safety, to the workers at the United Nations refugee camp where the family sought sanctuary, to the individuals that helped them settle in the United States.
Asegdom challenged the Byram Hills middle schoolers to embrace the notion of what it means to take action as an individual.
“A speech is not about the presenter, it’s about the audience and what they take away from the speech,” he said.
Asegdom described his own isolation as a first-grader in a Chicago elementary school and encouraged students to “see the invisible people,” alluding to his first experience of being invited to a classmate’s birthday party.
He also told students that they all had a “turbo button,” which they could choose to hit any time to make a difference. But Asegdom cautioned that when they do, “You always want to think about the dignity of the person you are serving.”
In addition to beginning the Power of One day with an inspiring, tone-setting speech, Asgedom donated 52 copies of his memoir, “Of Beetles and Angels,” for sale at the school, with proceeds going to a children’s home in Ethiopia.
Sixth-graders then got to put Asegdom’s words to work, as they took part in one of 17 workshops, each illustrating how they can participate in a cause and make a difference.
Workshops ranged from learning about homelessness and making pillowcases for shelters, to stuffing teddy bears for the Heavenly Productions Foundation to give to children in distress. Byram Hills High School senior Samantha Errico conducted a workshop about her Pocket Full of Sunshine charity dedicated to helping people who live in extreme poverty in Mexico.
Sixth-grade teacher Sheila St. Onge—one of the event's founders—marveled at the evolution of the Power of One.
“We came up with the idea right after Katrina,” she said. “Everyone was in the same place of wondering what they could do and how they should respond. When we thought of this concept, everyone was on board.”
St. Onge says the tradition is now self-sustaining.
“Every year, I’m in charge of the workshops. This year was great because instead of finding people to run them, I had people reaching out to me to ask how they could contribute,” she said. “Including former sixth-graders who are now in high school, wanting to come back and run their own workshop.”
The event made an impression on at least one sixth-grader.
"I will be telling my parents about how many good things our school has been able to do in just one day!" said Ishmael Asad.