There’s a much-quoted proverb found in Paris Union School District 95 schools and offices emphasizing the importance of community involvement to raise a child.
Anyone looking for proof of the importance of a community working to provide life lessons to elementary children, need look no further than the magic that is the Wenz School Dine and Dance event.
The third annual event attended by 170 third, fourth and fifth graders — 70 percent of the school — began when Cindy Belt was asked to visit the third-grade classroom of Mary Ann Magers at Wenz School and provide some basic lessons in manners. From that first visit, the idea of the Dine and Dance was conceived by then-principal Amy Perry, Belt and school paraprofessional Mike Morris.
Magers was working the maternity leave for Megan Carroll when the first lessons were given. Carroll is now school principal and has whole-heartedly thrown herself into support for the now annual event.
“Our students have been looking forward to this night since the papers announcing the date and other information were sent home,” Carroll said Thursday, Sept. 12, as she watched the students being seated for dinner in the school cafeteria.
Belt still comes to the school to provide lessons to the school’s third graders and will do a refresher course for the fourth and fifth graders if needed.
“Why wouldn’t the kids be excited?” she said. “They get to dress up, come to school, be served by our celebrity waiters, dance and have fun. It’s such a positive event.”
The children are divided into two sittings for dinner, Belt explained. While one group is eating the other group is enjoying dancing and music in the school gym, thanks to teacher B.J. Fessant.
This year, the children were given tickets in the school colors — purple and gold — to assign them to their group, Morris explained.
“We gave the tickets out before they went home from school today (Thursday),” he said, emphasizing an amazing percentage of the students brought the ticket as instructed and didn’t lose it after they danced or ate.
While the meal is served in the cafeteria, students don’t sit at regular school lunch tables. Round tables with chairs are placed around the gym. Each student is assigned to a numbered table and found a formal place card announcing their assigned seat. The tables are decorated in the school colors with a tablecloth. Each student finds a proper placement of knife, fork, spoon and napkin. Ice-cold bottled water is also provided to each student.
The menu has never varied and is catered by Joni Smith and her staff from Front Street Market in Hume. The students are served crispy chicken, party potatoes — always a favorite — green beans and a roll with butter. For dessert, there is ice cream and a homemade sugar cookie with sprinkles.
Smith has been involved in the event since its inception and is impressed with both the students, the adult volunteers who serve and the support of the Paris community.
“They say it takes a village,” Smith said. “We’re the stone soup of the village bringing everyone together.”
A major partner making the event possible is Horizon Health, Carroll emphasized. This year, working with Horizon Health marketing director Erin Frank, the two women designed a magnetic frame in the school colors to hold the picture of each child attending.
In addition, four Horizon Health doctors are waiters for the evening.
“They interact with the children and the students are thrilled,” Belt said.
Physicians Manish Gorasiya, Lauren Fore, Rahat Sheikh and Kumar Sodvadiya cleared their busy schedules to be present for the event. The doctors proved popular waiters and the students were delighted to see them.
“One of our third-grade teachers, Melinda Young, has been in charge of the photo booth since we started this,” Carroll said.
Young, assisted by music teacher Rebecca Fonseca, took every child’s picture, printed them and presented them to students at the end of the evening.
Belt continues to be impressed by the care a majority of the students take in choosing their attire for the evening.
“Most of them wear their best,” she said, pointing to boys wearing a suit or shirt with ties and girls in dresses.
Belt also teaches the importance of responding to an RSVP in a timely manner. Once the event is over, she brings Horizon Health note cards to the school and every child who attended is asked to write a thank you note to the adult of their choice.
The servers for the evening included Paris Police Chief Eric Brown, Paris Fire Chief Brian Gates, Edgar County Sheriff Jeff Wood as well as retired teachers and adult volunteers. The students are quickly and efficiently served their meals and dessert, the tables are cleared and then reset for the second dining group — all under the watchful eye of Belt, who sometimes has to remind the servers how to place the utensils on the placemats.
The evening would not be possible without the generous support of the Paris community. Morris raises approximately $2,000 each year from local businesses, individuals as well as local service clubs Paris Rotary and Paris Kiwanis Clubs. He also noted two individuals have indicated if fundraising ever falls short, to contact them.
“We grew up sitting down to dinner every night as a family,” Belt said. “For the majority of these students, both parents work plus there are athletics, games and lessons. We make them feel special.”