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Altitude students learn empathy, community service through animal shelter project

Altitude students work on constructing a tug-of-war dog toy during a crafting session in March.Kyler Schuhmacher knows just how important a good game of tug-of-war can be for any active dog.

Schuhmacher, a first-grader at Altitude Elementary, has firsthand experience when it comes to finding the best interactive dog toys, thanks to the two pooches he has at home. That personal experience came in to play as Schuhmacher recently joined his fellow first-graders at Altitude to assemble canine toys for a local animal shelter.

“I have two dogs, a black lab and a yellow lab,” Schuhmacher said as he and his peers worked on putting together toys provided by Project Helping, a local nonprofit dedicated to volunteerism. “My dogs really love tug-of-war toys, and we’re making them. I feel really good about this project.”

According to Altitude STEAM coordinator Ryan Remien, the combination of public service and animals is an ideal fit for first-graders just starting to think about concepts like volunteering and giving back. The project that saw students assembling tug-of-war toys and bandanas for dogs was designed to harness children’s natural love for animals to teach them larger lessons about community, selflessness and generosity.

“Each grade level at the school takes part in a public service project; one of the components of our project-based service curriculum is empathy,” Remien said. “In first grade, we focus around animals, particularly what they can do for animal shelters. One of the kits that Project Helping provides is a ‘Kynd Kit,’ which lets kids actually make toys for shelter animals.”

The idea behind the project, Remien explained, is to provide comfort and fun to shelter animals, ultimately making them more comfortable and more likely to be adopted. “When animals play with toys they’re happy, and more likely to find a forever home,” he explained to the students before the group started working on putting together the toys.

Establishing concepts of community service, gratitude and volunteering in students at an early age sets a foundation for empathy, Remien said, and it also ties in to the core values of the entire Cherry Creek School District. The project supports the values of engagement, relationship building and social/emotional health; it caters to a whole child approach to learning, one that stresses character as well as academic engagement.

“It’s building on the idea of mental health and mental awareness, and how much that can affect one’s community,” Remien said. “We talk to our students about the idea of being producers rather than consumers, creating for the world rather than just taking from the world. They’re designing for others, building for others – if students are mindful about what they’re creating for the community, they’re likely to put more care into it.”

Schuhmacher certainly put care into the pieces he constructed for the local shelter. In addition to the tug-of-war toy, he had already put together a bandana featuring an original design.

“The bandana was a white cloth, and we took markers and colored it so that the dogs could wear it,” he said. “I drew dog bones, paw prints, hearts. It was cool.”