The Kids Are Alright: Teacher Jay Gionet Has A Proven (Mathematical) Formula That Inspires

by ELLYN SANTIAGO

Dr. Cynthia Tucker, a CLMS Grade 7 parent volunteer pictured with Jay Gionet at one of the three water stations

It’s been many years since Jay Gionet’s mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer. He promised her then that he’d do what he could to help further research to help find a cure for breast cancer.

“I do it for my mom,” he said. “I wanted to give her something she didn’t have.” He’s also been greatly inspired by his dear friend Matt Auger who died from cancer.

Jay enjoys sharing his story.

“I feel like I inspire others by the work I do.”

And, inspiration is what drives him. A former nuclear engineer, he left that world after many years to teach. Who knew that the middle school mathematics educator would find deeper inspiration from a word problem. Yes: ahead will be a lot of math. But in a very good way.

A word problem similar to this: Julianna participated in a walkathon for cancer research. She received several pledges from neighbors for a total of 25 dollars per mile, and flat donations from family members that totaled 80 dollars. Write an equation in the form of Y = Mx + B, that would help Julianna determine the total amount of money she raised for cancer research for “any amount of miles (x)” that she walks.

A light went on for Jay. What a teachable moment! Not just a mathematics lesson, but a way to illustrate the problem with action: hold a walk-a-thon to raise money for breast cancer research.

“The students had no idea how a walk-a-thon worked. Or how this went together mathematically.”

So, he showed them.

In 2007, the first East Lyme Middle School Walk was held.

“We set the bar low, but still raised nearly $14,000.” All of the money was raised for the Terri Brodeur Breast Cancer Foundation.

The next year, 2008, a little competition was added with East Lyme kids hoping to outraise Old Saybrook Middle School students. That year, Gionet’s students raised more than $40,000.

After a hiatus that included the adoption of his daughter and a new gig at Clark Lane Middle School in 2017, he went back to teaching and back to fundraising, with a little help from teacher colleagues and middle-schoolers with weeks, indeed months, of planning, pledge-seeking and finally, hours spent walking the school track. More than $23,000 was raised that year. And even more the next. And the next. And each time, a significant portion of walk-a-thon funds raised were given to the TBBCF.

Then the pandemic hit.

“We weren’t sure what to do, but we really wanted to keep the ball rolling,” he said.

A walk was held, with just teachers.

“We couldn’t do it as a fundraiser, but we thought we’re not going to let this stop here; so right after Memorial Day we gathered at Hole-in-the-Wall beach, and we walked four and a half miles. It was a lot of fun. We shared stories with each other. We just never thought it would be shut down in 2021 and 2022,” he said.

Fast forward to 2023.

It’s a lot of work planning an event like a walk-a-thon and especially in a school setting. Teachers are already busy, busy. But push forward Jay did along with his teacher colleagues Cristina deCastro, Kirsten Eident and Chris McNeil.

“Those three and my energy are a perfect storm team,” he said.

And with a new class came a fresh opportunity to engage kids.

“We talked to the kids. We explained the math to them, and they began to get it,” he said. Soon, kids were comparing pledge sheets. And then, a friendly competition between other classes, and we challenged students to see if they could possibly beat the amount raised back in 2008 at East Lyme Middle School.

“They really began to get it. They started checking their (pledge) sheets and started setting challenges. One class had $500 in pledges. Another $800 with screams of joy coming from that class. Then, I said whoever can reach $1,000, the first class to reach it, would win doughnuts. I’m working with my class and the next thing you know, Ms. Castro’s class raised $1,000 …in less than 24 hours. There’s such an incredible excitement from those kids.”

And all the while, there’s teaching going on. And it’s not just math. How about geography?

“If we all walked a total of 3,591 miles, where would we be? Disney World in Florida? To Disneyland in California? Now, you catch their attention. Now kids want to pull out their calculator. You could even use it in geography. How far would it be to Mexico City?”

And while math and geography lessons were learned, the fundraising was becoming increasingly successful. Posts on social media, PTOs getting involved and, using new app technology, now grandparents from across the country could pledge for miles walked using applications like Cheddar Up, which helps groups collect money for fundraisers and other events. The kids were getting jazzed. There was an opportunity to really raise a lot of money. The seventh graders were looking to break records and were shooting for $30,000.

And records were broken by Clark Lane Middle School kids. What a feeling!

In the end, when all the money was counted, $42,215 was raised. And of that, $25,200 went to TBBCF. $12,015 went to the Clark Lane Middle School Health Team, and $5,000 went to the Cactus Jack Foundation, the non-profit whose mission is to help those in need throughout Southeastern CT.

Jay started something back in 2007. Something big. He took a math word problem and instead of just numbers and symbols on a whiteboard, he inspired kids to reach beyond. He hopes his idea of marrying academic lessons with good works inspires others.

“It’s not just me. It’s not just a me project. It’s about all of us.”

Inspiring.

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