McGee Physical Education teacher Bryan Plona remembers more than 10 years ago starting a little event just to get some students some additional activity.
Almost 15 years later that idea has turned into a major part of the spring season at McGee Middle School.
"I can remember starting off, we didn't raise any money, we just wanted to get some kids out to play some basketball," Plona said of the model that has become March Madness at McGee. "The second year we started a penny drive and we went from there."
March Madness began at Catherine M. McGee Middle School in March of 1998. Students were encouraged to become a participant in our own basketball tournament which was patterned after the NCAA men's and women's national college tournament. The concept of March Madness was discussed, and students were encouraged to select their own teams and actively participate. The finalists of each grade level would earn the right to play the Dream Team (McGee Staff). This gives the staff an opportunity to interact with students at another level therefore building better student - staff relationships and cooperation.
Students are given the opportunity to participate in our tournament as players, referees, or scorers. In addition, Student Council sponsored a spirit week. Students showed off their school spirit by participating in jersey day, green and gold day, hat day and much more. A penny drive was organized to help our students learn that team work can be achieved at many levels, not just on the basketball court. They soon realized that all together we can accomplish more. Since March Madness began at McGee, students have collected $61,415.32 for charity.
"The most surprising part to me is that this event has become part of the culture of McGee School, " Plona said. "We have sixth graders who come in and know what March Madness is all about and they can't wait to take part in it. We have pages dedicated to us in the yearbook this year. It has come a long way."
Plona said the whole staff at McGee helps and suuports the event but it would not be possible without the work of Mike Eagle, Linda Germain, Steve Matyczyk, Marc Centurelli and Shawn Pelletier.
That first year, in 1998, the penny drive raised $3,176.22 and has raised between $2,330.82 and $6,058.99 over the past 14 years.
This year in nine days McGee collected $4,059.18 through its Penny Drive. This year a read-a-thon was added and McGee students raised $9,252.30.
Students in each grade are asked to write persuasive essays about a charity of their choice and why it should earn some of the money raised.
The three big winners this year, awarded $500 for their respective charities, were sixth grader Gregory Platosz (Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure), seventh grader Mia Salgado (Berlin Relay for Life) and eighth grader Abby Simmone (Marcus Apter - The Miracle League of Greater Hartford.)
Also winning money for their charities in sixth grade were: Jacqueline Saraceno - Foundation of Sarcoidosis Research, Katie Scalora - Helen and Harry Gray Cancer Center, Hannah Schulz - American Lung Association, Zachary Spencer - Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation and Brooke Strobino - Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
Winning money in seventh grade were: Cheyenne Inturri - Connecticut Children's Medial Center Toy Box, Effie Makris - Lea's Foundation for Leukemia Research, Connor Ruszczyk - Connecticut Fund for the Environment, Carolyn Stickel - National Federation of the Blind and Kimberly Tencza - Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.
Winning money in eighth grade were: Laura Cohen - American Diabetes Association, Kade Lamontagne - Danny Did Foundation, Ashley Markow - St. Francis Mount Sinai Research Cancer Center, Dannia Szymanski - Celiac Disease Foundation and Abbie Underwood - American Cancer Society.
More than 700 essays were written by students taking part in the persuasive essay contest and more than 200 different charities were nominated by the students.
The March Madness event also allows for students to design a program and t-shirt each year. This years winners were: Charlie Espositio, Danielle Skates, Sumara Ali and Pooja Patel.
"The best school day of the year is when I get to call these charities and tell them we have a check for them and then call the parents and tell them their kids helped win money for the charity" Plona added. "It's a great feeling.