HENNEPIN — When Courtney Balestri, principal of Putnam County Elementary School (PCES), was approached by a group of students wanting to do something to give back to their community, she had no idea it would end with a pie in her face.
The students were fifth -graders Maggie Spratt, Madison Wasilewski, Hannah Taliani and Kaden Nauman. After helping the group decide which project to develop, Balestri then involved the entire school in the charitable effort.
“They had several ideas and we helped scale it down to what we thought we could realistically accomplish. It was a teachable moment as they were forced to consider the many details of what would have to be done in order to reach their goal,” Balestri said.
The group eventually decided they wanted to raise money to help the animals at the Illinois Valley Animal Rescue (IVAR) in LaSalle. The students of each class collected whatever they could and as a reward, their principal announced a lucky few from the class raising the most money could throw a pie at her.
“It doesn’t matter if you gave five cents or five dollars, your efforts have made a difference and you’ve helped these animals,” Balestri told her students.
The school raised a total of $160 and the final morning of the event found Balestri a bit nervous.
“I’ve spoken in front of hundreds of people many times and I’ve never been nervous, but for some reason my hands are shaking this morning,” she said.
To help celebrate the success of the fundraising, IVAR volunteer and PCES alumnus John McKirgan attended the Oct. 31 assembly. He also brought a four-legged representative in Laya, who was appropriately dressed in a hamburger Halloween costume. Laya is a two-time IVAR rescue who McKirgan adopted after she was returned to the shelter a second time.
McKirgan told the students the funds will help provide medical care to the shelter’s 35 dogs and more than 100 cats. He later spoke about why he likes taking shelter dogs to visit schools.
“I like getting the kids to enjoy the dogs and when they see a bit of the sadder side of pets, it helps give hope for the future because they’ll see how important their compassion is and that they can make a difference,” he said.
After the students were assembled in the gym, Balestri reviewed the school’s “Six Pillars of Character,” an ongoing exercise designed to help instill positive behavior and decision making. The pillars consist of truth, responsibility, respect, caring, fairness and citizenship.
Following that, Laya was introduced. When the students learned she’d had puppies while in the shelter, they asked how many babies she’d had. McKirgan’s answer of “Nine,” resulted in a roar of approval.
Balestri then drew three names from Valerie Peterson’s fourth-grade class: Brayden Zuniga, Jonathan Avila and Vincen Dobson. As their principal assembled the pies which she’d soon be wearing, the student body grew increasingly louder as they encouraged her to make them as big as possible.
Through each of the three pies, everyone in the gymnasium was laughing, including Balestri. Following the issuance of the pies, Balestri, as she wiped the cream from her hair, announced they were rather cold and wet.
As the PCES student body filed from the gym, many stopped briefly to pet Laya. Before heading back to class the organizers were asked which they enjoyed more, their principal wearing pies or helping the animals in the shelter.
The answers were unanimously “Helping the animals,” which shows Balestri’s students have been paying attention to their “Six Pillars of Character.”