David and Alan Ball this past week hosted the first annual Erica and Jay Ball IMPACT Award competition and ceremony. This event honored Erica and Jay’s longstanding contributions to the Natick community, as well as the accomplishments of high school students who are following in the Balls’ footsteps.
At the June 7 event, six groups of finalists presented their public service projects to a jury, competing for a $1,000 prize to further their service goals. They were evaluated based on the work they have already completed, the path they plan to follow going forward, and the possible impact of the award, as well as other criteria. The jury was impressed with all the students’ passion, dedication, and bravery in putting together these projects and presenting them to the public. But they were particularly wowed by winner Kinslee Starling, especially for what she has already achieved and for her personal connection to her project.
Kinslee, a sophomore at Natick High School (NHS), hopes to create a school community that is more inclusive and collaborative, where students with and without special needs work together and form friendships. To do this, she is working to increase the accessibility of school events for students in the ACCESS program, which serves NHS students with special needs. Her brother Brian, who is in the ACCESS program and graduated from NHS in the class of 2023, has nonverbal autism. Sensory toys and low-sensory environments help him navigate social situations.
However, these resources are not usually available at school events, so he and other students in the ACCESS program are often unable to attend. Kinslee does not want her brother and other peers to miss out on quintessential high school experiences like prom because of their special needs. As such, she plans to use her prize money to purchase more sensory toys, such as fidgets and Yogibos, for the school to provide at events. Her end goal is for the school to have a sensory bus that would travel to events. The bus would serve as a low-sensory environment for students to decompress until they are ready to re-enter the main event.
“I’m just really happy that I have this opportunity, and I can’t wait to see where this takes me,” Kinslee said of winning the prize money.
Youth for Sex Education
The Ball family also presented a smaller sum of money to the runners-up, a group of NHS juniors that formed Youth for Sex Education. This group is advocating for the passage of the Healthy Youth Act at the state level. Currently, Massachusetts does not require comprehensive sex education, so schools can still choose to teach inadequate abstinence-based sex ed. Even schools with a more in-depth approach to sex ed often fall short on teaching about consent and healthy relationships, and leave LGBTQ+ students completely uninformed. The passage of this bill would require schools to teach about LGBTQ+ health, healthy relationships, and consent in order to prevent students from being caught in unsafe situations.
The group’s prize money will go towards renting a venue and purchasing other resources for an event they are holding on Sept. 9. The event aims to raise awareness about the Healthy Youth Act among students, parents, teachers, and any other Massachusetts residents—especially voters. The prize money will certainly help—one member teared up when finding out they had managed to win some money—but won’t get them all the way there, so they welcome any donations and support.
“We are very thankful for this opportunity to spread awareness, and we’ll continue to fight for adequate sex education,” said Talia Bradley, a member of Youth for Sex Education.
Many impressive projects
Even though these groups were the only two that received money, the jury believed that all the groups were deserving of the award, and its members are excited to see where the projects go from here. “I’m hoping that every single one of these teams gets their projects out there because they’re needed,” said Dr. Shai Fuxman, Natick School Committee Chair and jury member. The jury was particularly appreciative that each group presented a realistic solution to a real problem, rather than fabricating an issue for the sake of the award. The other groups, in no particular order, were ServeNatick, Nutritional Transparency at Natick High School, NHS Food Donation Program, and Stop the Bleed Training.
ServeNatick is a website created by Kabir Anand, Cameron Bernard, and Phineas Rando, all NHS freshmen. As NHS students, this group receives notifications from the school about community service opportunities to help them reach their community service graduation requirement. However, they realized that the general public does not have this easy access to information about volunteering, hindering their ability to get involved in helping their community. As such, the students designed and coded ServeNatick, a site on which Natick community members can post about events for which they need volunteers, browse community service opportunities to find events that work for them, and (eventually) read information about people running for town government positions. The group plans to fundraise so they can advertise the website, allowing it to serve more Natick residents.
Cami Smith, a sophomore at NHS, is advocating for greater transparency in the NHS cafeteria. As a vegetarian, she has few school lunch options, and can have trouble figuring out which lines, if any, she can stand in to get food she can eat. Students with food allergies or intolerances and students who simply want to have a healthy lunch are similarly unable to access clear information about whether the cafeteria food contains ingredients that are healthy for them to eat. To solve this problem, Cami wants to provide QR codes in every lunch line that students can scan to access the nutrition information and ingredients of each meal. Her next steps involve raising money for the app creation and other software necessary for this project.
Anna Keller, an NHS junior, is also working to change the way things are run in the school cafeteria. Her project focuses on reducing food waste and food insecurity in our community by creating a food donation program. Earlier this year, she conducted an audit of the school cafeteria and found that 17% of the food the cafeteria throws away, such as burgers and sandwiches, is donatable. Donating this food to people who need it (which the EPA ranks as the second-best way to reduce food waste, ahead of composting) would provide 490 meals each school year. She is fundraising to purchase a “share fridge”, where students can leave wrapped perishables, such as bagged carrots, for peers who are food insecure or just need a snack during the school day. At the end of the week, volunteers would donate the leftover food.
Rex Caruso, an NHS sophomore, wants to implement Stop the Bleed training in schools so that as many students and teachers as possible can learn how to save a life. One of Rex’s first memories is of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Their most clear takeaways were how helpless they felt because they didn’t have the knowledge to assist medically, and how much the bystanders helped save the lives of injured people at risk of bleeding out. Stop the Bleed training, which is free and has a low time commitment, teaches participants the basics of helping a person who is bleeding profusely, such as applying a tourniquet. Rex’s next steps include raising money to purchase materials for this training so they can create a school community that knows how to save a life when necessary.
Like these students, wife and husband Erica “Ricky” Ball and Jay Ball have demonstrated decades of public service to the Natick community. For instance, Erica was the first woman on the Natick Select Board and was involved with the Housing Authority and the League of Women Voters, among many other things. The Balls see the people of Natick as extended family, so when they have identified problems in town, they have worked to fix them so that life would be easier for their family. “There isn’t a couple in Natick who deserved to be honored with this award more than them,” said Dr. Fuxman.
The Erica and Jay Ball IMPACT Award is just one way the Balls continue to demonstrate their commitment to Natick’s community after their recent move to Canton. They plan to make this award an annual event to continue to inspire young people to get involved on the local level. Furthermore, the competition will be open to middle schoolers as well as high schoolers next year.
Speaking to the finalists at the event, Erica Ball said, “There’s never been anything that I’ve done that has been more rewarding to me than working on a local level in public service.” She told the high schoolers that public service would allow them to “not just exist in [your community], but love your community, make it a very, very special place.”