Total Community Involvement – St. Michael the Archangel Regional School wins 2020 Innovations in Catholic Education Award

By Victoria R. LaFave

Today’s Catholic Teacher honored the winners of the 23rd annual Innovations in Catholic Education Award. Awards are given in four categories: promoting Catholic identity; technology integration; curriculum and instruction; and total community involvement, including fundraising.

Congratulations to Saint Michael the Archangel Regional School!

The 2020 winner in the Total Community Involvement Category is St. Michael the Archangel Regional School, which serves 184 students in Clayton, New Jersey, honored for its Pen Pal Club.

St. Michael the Archangel Regional School, Clayton, New Jersey

The Pen Pal Club at St. Michael, under the direction of Sister Bianca Camilleri (FMIHM), was started as a community service project.

“We are thankful for being named winner and being recognized for our innovative Pen Pal Club,” Principal Philip J. Gianfortune said. “We aspire to having programs in our school that fulfill our mission and are in line with the Catholic Social Teachings for our students.”

The Pen Pal Club brings senior citizens and students together, creating a bond between the community and the school.

“At St. Michael, students learn how to care for and respect others, pray for those who are sick or lonely, and to put the needs of others ahead of their own,” Sister Bianca explained. “The Pen Pal Club provides an opportunity for the students to put into service what they are learning at school.”

At the beginning of each school year, senior citizens from St. Michael’s parishes, including those who are homebound, sick, or elderly, are asked to be a part of the Club. Those who were already members are invited to participate again.

Students in fourth through eighth grades elect to join the Pen Pal Club. Some of the members continue year after year until they graduate, knowing they are being of service to their community and because of the relationships they’ve developed with their pen pals.

Students and penpals

One senior pen pal wrote to Sister Bianca, “I think it is a very good program for both the students and their pen pals. I know that I truly appreciate receiving my letters. I’m not sure who gets more excited, me or my husband. I’m certain all pen pals feel the same way as I do.”

Throughout the school year, the students write monthly and on special occasions to their senior pen pal, sharing their life experiences, including updates on their school activities.

“While the senior pen pals are not expected to write back, they are encouraged to do so if they are able, as the students are just as thrilled to receive letters as they are to send them,” Gianfortune explained.

One senior citizen pen pal wrote in her letter to her student pen pal, “I feel truly blessed that you chose me to be your pen pal.”

The senior pen pals are also remembered in daily prayers, as well as at church on Sunday. They are even invited to school Masses and special events, such as the St. Michael Veterans Day Appreciation Breakfast and Prayer Service.

At the end of the school year, St. Michael hosts a Pen Pal celebration, complete with fun, friendship, refreshments and entertainment, where the students meet and honor their senior pen pals.

During a recent gathering of pen pals, an eighth grade student spoke to those in attendance, including special guest Diocese of Camden Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan. She described her experience as a pen pal: “I have been a pen pal since fourth grade. I have enjoyed writing many letters to [my pen pals] over the years, but my greatest joy has been in receiving correspondence from my pen pal families. I have saved every letter.”

In a thank you letter to Sister Bianca, a daughter of a senior pen pal wrote, ‘My father… is 84 years old and is having a hard time battling leukemia. My dad looks forward to [his pen pal’s] letters and shares [his pen pal’s] stories with us. …I cannot thank you enough for putting this program together.’

“This is a truly wonderful program that benefits students, seniors and the community, and creates a bond with memories that last a lifetime,” Gianfortune explained. “What makes this program so innovative is that it has stood the test of time and technology.”

Learn more about St. Michael the Archangel Regional School:


Two Finalists

Two finalists were also awarded for their Community Involvement projects. The finalists are All Saints Catholic School (ASCS) in Davenport, Iowa, for its Veterans Day Celebration; and Lakewood Catholic Academy in Lakewood, Ohio, for its Great Lake Shake Competition.


All Saints Catholic School, a Pre-K through eighth grade school, serves 440 students in the Diocese of Davenport.

Veterans visit

“We are honored to have been chosen as a finalist for our Veterans Day program,” ASCS Principal Jeanne Von Feldt said. “The students know that they get to celebrate their freedom because of our wonderful Veterans.”

All Saints has had a Veterans Day celebration since 2012. “It is known to be a very moving and emotional day for Veterans, active service members, and students,” Von Feldt explained. “The day begins with Veterans and active service members escorted by student ambassadors going into all the classrooms and interacting with our students.”

The veterans and guests are treated to a homemade lunch served by the middle school students. The K-8 students present a program for everyone that begins with prayer and features patriotic songs, poetry, dances, essays, letters and a shadow theatre.

“It is very special when the Armed Forces Medley is played and the children sing the different songs of each branch of the Armed Forces,” Von Feldt smiled. “We ask all those who have served, or who are currently serving, to please stand and join in when their song is played. It is very heartwarming to see these wonderful men and women stand with their hands over their hearts, singing their song that means so much to them.”


The students look at the veterans and soldiers with respect and awe, while the veterans and soldiers in their uniforms many times look at the students with tears in their eyes. The day has continued to grow, with over 150 guests coming to All Saints Catholic School for past Veterans Day programs.

“We are very proud of our school’s relationship with the Army and hope to continue making this special day even more meaningful for our students and our guests as we show our gratitude to all of these very special citizens in our community,” Von Feldt said. “We realize how blessed we are to live in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave! Thank You to our Veterans! You are our Heroes!”

Learn more about All Saints Catholic School:


Finalist Lakewood Catholic Academy (LCA), which educates 625 students in the Diocese of Cleveland, is Ohio’s only Catholic elementary school to be designated as an International Baccalaureate World School.

Great Lake Shake

“It was wonderful to be recognized as a finalist in this category,” President of Lakewood Catholic Academy Brian Sinchak said. “LCA is a leader in innovative, curricular programming that reaches beyond the schoolhouse walls. Being recognized by a national publication is quite an achievement and gives us a sense of accomplishment and pride.”

One of the leading global concerns in education is the proliferation of technology in the hands of our children and the deterioration of interpersonal communication skills.

“To address this new reality in a meaningful way, we at Lakewood invited our local community to be part of the solution in an innovative program called The Great Lake Shake,” Sinchak explained. “All sixth through eighth grade students participate in this fun-filled competition celebrating interpersonal communication skills.”

The Great Lake Shake competition has students interacting with a wide variety of leaders from the community. Students are challenged to demonstrate excellent verbal and non-verbal communication skills and are evaluated on their manners, conversational skills, proper handshakes, eye contact, and professional appearance. Students practice these skills with their teachers.

On competition day, LCA welcomes over 60 Cleveland area leaders to serve as judges. Students compete in three rounds: first, they enjoy breakfast with community leaders; they then mingle with business professionals. Finally, they have one minute to introduce themselves to the judges in a speed meet and greet session.

At the conclusion of the three rounds of competition, the top six students are announced and are taken by limousine to their final surprise challenge, which varies from year to year. (First year students interviewed for a marketing position with Dee Haslam, owner of the Cleveland Browns, at their corporate headquarters.)

The final guest judge selects the top two students, who are crowned Champions. These students are then invited to compete in a national tournament in Atlanta, Georgia. 

The results of the Great Lake Shake Competition have been impressive. For the past two years, LCA students have placed among the top 12 in the nation. “We have seen a marked improvement in our students’ ability to communicate,” Sinchak smiled, “and we receive positive feedback from our partner high schools that our students are among the most articulate first-year students.”

Learn more about Lakewood Catholic Academy:

Victoria R. LaFave writes for Today’s Catholic Teacher, and for Holy Name Catholic School and The Bishop Noa Home, both in Escanaba, Michigan. She has had several of her stories published in Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

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