GDS Initiatives Seek to Bring Joy in January and Beyond

GDS’ website promoting its Joyful January and CAN-uary initiatives. 

Throughout January, cars pulled up to GDS as students and parents donated food and supplies for various organizations to help Washingtonians in need, including the D.C.-based organizations Martha’s Table and Friendship Place. Upperclassmen delivered donations directly to the organizations, with cars packed to the front seats. 

The food drive was the culminating event of CAN-uary and Joyful January, the brainchildren of Director of Student Life and Wellness Bobby Asher and the effort of countless GDS community members. In contrast to the winter doldrums and the stress associated with February for many GDS students, these initiatives last month brought joy and a sense of purpose to many in the community.

For Joyful January, organizers shared videos and activities that brought them joy, including Pixar shorts, funny animal compilations and online games, like Scrabble and Pictionary. In addition, they organized Zoom calls for the GDS community. The calls received sizable turnouts, some with over seventy families from all grades competing in games including charades and Taboo.

GDS’ Admissions and Marketing Specialist Michelle McKeever, who helped organize Joyful January, said those involved “really wanted to instill some sort of joy into our community because we know it’s been a tough year for everybody.”

Similarly, the purpose of CAN-uary, named to focus on what people CAN do, was to cultivate a sense of engagement by organizing students to participate in local community service work. Leigh Tait, a program associate for community engagement at GDS and one of the organizers of CAN-uary, said the month-long events were organized on the principle that “we are all really seeking purpose and we’re seeking opportunities to feel joy and [to] feel togetherness and community.”

As part of CAN-uary, lower school students made cards for kids in hospitals and for frontline workers, and over a hundred families donated items to GDS’ partner organizations. “We had great participation with the food and supply drive,” Asher said, adding, “but honestly, I just want people to feel joy!”

The missions of CAN-uary and Joyful January resonated with GDS students, many of whom said they are feeling disconnected while navigating the virtual world in which we are now living. 

Bryce Savoy, a senior who participated in CAN-uary and Joyful January and helped organize the high school events, agreed that aspects of GDS’ community and spirit have been lost as a result of the coronavirus and virtual learning. “Doing things virtually, it’s hard because we all want so much to be back in person and see each other,” Savoy said. “There’s a very apparent disconnect from the community.” Even with a hybrid schedule, Savoy still does not feel the same connections would be made as in a pre-coronavirus setting.

While CAN-uary and Joyful January helped reinforce social connections during the first month of the year, the organizers hope that members of the GDS community will be inspired to seek out connectivity and joy on an ongoing basis.

Tait and McKeever both cited adopting pets as sources of happiness and positivity. Also, McKeever says she makes sure to sleep well and to appreciate having time alone. As McKeever put it, “It’s not about being necessarily positive all the time, but it’s about finding things that you can be positive about each day.”

To stay positive, Savoy says he makes sure to get outside and stay connected to people in his life, whether it is through FaceTime, virtual game nights, socially distant picnics or cooking with his family. Additionally, he emphasized the importance of finding opportunities to do meaningful work outside of school obligations.

“Doing good things on behalf of others makes us happier,” Asher echoed. He also pointed out that happiness improves our physical health, citing a study in which participants were exposed to the cold, with joyful individuals displaying fewer symptoms. Indeed, happiness can improve physical and mental health, and many studies illustrate this point — including one conducted at Carnegie Mellon University that affirmed the results of the cold study and found that happiness plays a larger role in our health than previously thought.

“Being in self-isolation, it can be really easy to get into a slump and overthink and pay too much attention to yourself,” Savoy said. “Helping others is a good way to not only have a positive impact on a larger community, but get you outside of yourself.”

Junior Arthur Herman, a driver for CAN-uary, has also made food for the homeless with friends outside of school. “I think it’s super important right now,” he said, “because obviously there’s a lot more food insecurity now than there was before,” with people losing their jobs and having to balance work and taking care of children.

Herman is working to organize with neighbors via his local listserv as well. They regularly make sandwiches, trail mix and muffins for Martha’s Table. “I think that’s something a lot of people can do,” he said. “It’s not super difficult or time-consuming, but it goes a long way to get your local community or people you know to help out.”

Finding the small things that bring joy, staying connected with others and helping out community members at risk are all ways Asher, Savoy, McKeever, Tait and Herman are finding fulfillment in this pandemic. They think others could benefit from doing the same.

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