At 12 years old and with a world of ambition, Ariana DeMattei set out on a mission to give her younger peers an equal opportunity to succeed in school.On Tuesday, after nearly a year of hard work, she realized that goal.
The Westhampton Beach Middle School eighth-grader stood in the cafeteria of the Westhampton Beach Elementary School examining the rows of white bags—about 150 of them—filled with color-coordinated school supplies. Each bag, which would be distributed to children in need later that day, was labeled by gender and grade level, and would be paired with a new backpack.
“It was very overwhelming,” Ariana said, explaining the emotion that came with completing the project, which she dubbed Backpacks For Fellow Students. “It made me feel so great to understand how much I accomplished in such a short period of time.”
A lover of children and education, Ariana, an only child who lives in Center Moriches, said she came up with the idea while thinking of service projects she could complete as part of her bat mitzvah preparations. She explained that she had high hopes and dreams for her future, and was bothered by the fact that other students might be held back simply because they couldn’t afford the required supplies.
“I think that was her most enlightening moment when she went to the checkout for her own school supplies,” said Nancy DeMattei, Ariana’s mother, explaining how the costs add up quickly.
With the help of her mother and father, James, and friends, Ariana spent about a year holding all sorts of fundraisers, including an event called the “Spring Splash,” which was similar to a polar bear plunge, a movie night and bake sales. She raised about $10,000 with help from grants provided by the Southampton Youth Bureau, Kohl’s, Modell’s Sporting Goods, the Kiwanis Club of Greater Westhampton and the Westhampton Beach Police Benevolent Association. She also thanked Kym Laube, the executive director of Human Understanding and Growth Seminars Inc, a nonprofit dedicated to alcohol and drug prevention, which sponsored the Spring Splash that was held at Rogers Beach in Westhampton Beach last April.
In addition to those grants and sponsorships, Ariana explained that she received plenty of donations from strangers who heard about her project and were eager to help, including one anonymous former Westhampton Beach student who donated 20 backpacks.
Ariana and her mother spent the summer shopping for the items on the lists of required supplies handed out by the elementary school teachers in Westhampton Beach. They purchased enough items to give to the students in the school who qualified for the district’s free or reduced lunches. Next, Ariana and her best friend, RaeAnn Spinner, 13, of East Moriches and also an eighth-grader at the middle school, spent hours organizing and carefully sorting the supplies.
“She has really done an amazing job,” Westhampton Beach Elementary School Principal Lisa Slover said on Monday while standing in the cafeteria among all the packed bags and backpacks.
She pointed out how much thought Ariana put into the project, taking care to purchase different patterned backpacks and supplies so the students would feel special, but also so that they wouldn’t be recognized as being in need of the items.
“We didn’t want them to feel any different because they were in need,” Ms. Slover said, noting that there are many people in the community who do not know or understand that such a need exists.
The principal recalled the day last year when Ariana approached her to propose the project. Ms. Slover, knowing the extensive school supply lists handed out by teachers, suggested that she start out small and concentrate on helping the kindergarten, first and second grade students. (The list of required supplies for a fifth-grader, for example, includes two boxes of tissues, several hard-covered notebooks, two binders, pencils, paper, scissors, four marble composition notebooks, dividers, highlighters, dry erase markers, headphones, six folders, glue sticks and sticky notes.)
Ariana, however, had loftier ambitions.
“She was very polite and very professional, and she said, ‘I really think I want to take this all on,’” Ms. Slover recalled with a smile.
Ariana said she intends to continue raising funds this school year and, if she finds success, will continue helping those students who need the assistance.
And there is little reason to doubt her.
“She set this goal, and she has done it,” Ms. Slover said.