Every year guidance counselors and other staff tasked with wrangling students at the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake graduation make sure to bring extra dollar bills with them.
When the students walk on stage and head toward the superintendent to receive their diploma, they must, tradition dictates, bring a dollar bill with them. Dating to the late 1980s, the graduating classes from Burnt Hills have pooled small resources to send a big message: we stand behind those in need.
As they reach out for a congratulatory handshake with the superintendent, the students hand over their dollar; the superintendent hands over their diploma. The superintendent’s pockets fill up with cash.
The dollars – and sometimes fives, tens, twenties and occasionally a one hundred – are donated to a cause decided by the students. Sometimes the classes donate to large national organizations like the American Cancer Society or the Juvenile Diabetes Association, other times they send the money to a cause much closer to home.
In 2009, when Jacob Shell, the 8-year-old son of Burnt Hills football coach Matt Shell, was diagnosed with a rare childhood cancer, the graduating class rallied around the Shells, helping a little financially but sending a broader message of support. (Matt Shell had been diagnosed and treated for mouth cancer the year before.)
The Shells – with both father and son testing cancer-free – established the nonprofit Shellstrong Foundation in 2011 and raised enough money to donate over $30,000 to the Melodies Center at Albany Medical Center, the childhood cancer center that treated Jacob.
Maryellen Symer, assistant superintendent for instruction, was surprised when the 2012 graduating class signaled her out for the annual donation. She was also diagnosed with cancer that year, when she was principal at the high school. She thought she had kept the diagnosis under wraps – “I hadn’t even started to lose my hair,” she said. But at graduation the students announced they were donating the money to the Susan G. Komen Foundation in her honor.
“It really was a shock to me, because I had tried to keep the diagnosis pretty quiet,” Symer said. “Our kids are very active and caring. They care about not only the global piece, but I have seen them truly care about each other.”
This year’s donation will also land close to home, but it remains under wraps until graduation day next week.
“Whoever it’s hitting, they feel surprised, they feel like they have a community behind them when they are in need,” Symer said.
Kyle Farmer, Burnt Hills High School student government president, said a parent of a friend told him she remembered that graduates in the late-1980s had delivered marbles to the superintendent as a joke but were spurred to adopt the dollar tradition to show the superintendent they stood with him after his wife died of cancer.
“They transformed it into something useful,” said Farmer, who is headed to Rochester Institute for Technology in the fall to study computer science.
The dollar bill tradition first emerged in 1989, according to Symer, who has discussed the tradition with a school librarian who has researched its origins. That year Superintendent Richard O’Rourke’s first wife, Arlette O’Rourke, died of cancer. The graduating class donated its dollars to the American Cancer Society. Ever since Burnt Hills superintendents have had to make sure they are able to secure hundreds of dollars in the middle of the graduation stage.
“The tradition just stuck after that happened,” Symer said of the initial donation. “I don’t think a class has ever missed it.”
Not only do the bill values vary so do the means of presentation. Students fold the dollars into origami swans or a man in suit and tie before presenting the superintendent their signal of support. Some students have even delivered their money in change.
The power of the dollar bill hand-off rests not in the size of the financial contribution but in the message carried by a community of students standing together in support of a singular cause, Symer and Farmer said. It also demonstrates that everyone has the power to support the cause.
“The dollar is such a good symbol; it’s something everyone can contribute to,” Farmer said. “In a way, it’s small enough that everyone can support it.”