Berkley collaboration program looks to help veterans in need

By: Joshua Gordon | Woodward Talk | Published December 16, 2015

 Pattengill Elementary School fifth-grader Emma Sammon, left, part of the Berkley Destination Imagination team, watches as Matt Fooy, of Berkley, plays the game of fowling.

Pattengill Elementary School fifth-grader Emma Sammon, left, part of the Berkley Destination Imagination team, watches as Matt Fooy, of Berkley, plays the game of fowling.

Photo by Donna Agusti


BERKLEY — For Anderson Middle School seventh-grader Elise Essenmacher, finding out that there are veterans who struggle with everyday activities in their homes was jarring.

“I was touched to know these veterans don’t have homes to go to that suit their needs,” she said. “I saw that, and we decided we wanted to help.”

The “we” is the Berkley Destination Imagination team, of which Essenmacher is a part. DI is a nonprofit, volunteer-led program that provides students with a chance to improve their academics while combining exposure to the arts and community service.

Essenmacher is one of six students from Berkley — two Anderson seventh-graders and four fifth-graders from Pattengill Elementary School — who, as a team, had to choose one of six projects as part of DI to complete. Ultimately, they settled on a community service project.

After the team researched the needs of severely injured veterans in their own homes, the team partnered with Building for America’s Bravest, an organization that incorporates technology into injured veterans’ homes to make them “smart homes.”

The upgrades can include stoves that lower and raise to meet the level of the veteran, automatic flushing toilets, walk-in showers and tablets to control electronics. Berkley DI’s initial goal was to raise $1,700 to donate to Building for America’s Bravest for a wheelchair ramp or walk-in shower.

That goal was met on Dec. 7, and now they are looking to raise another $2,200 for an adjustable stove. On Dec. 13, the team held a fundraiser at the Fowling Warehouse to help raise funds for their project.

“The community service project we picked this year was like nothing we had ever done before, and one of our team members found out about the Building for America’s Bravest, and we thought it would be a good charity to raise money for,” Essenmacher said. “One of our teammates likes to go fowling as a family, and it combines throwing footballs at bowling pins, so we thought it would be fun.”

As part of DI, each year teams go through several competitions to learn rapid-fire skills and how to complete tasks as a team in a short amount of time. The team challenge, however, is the biggest component, said Essenmacher’s mother, Courtney Essenmacher, who serves as the team’s parent leader.

While Courtney Essenmacher helps oversee the program, DI also calls for the students to not receive any help from adults, including ideas or help executing projects.

“The goal is to teach the kids to think creatively and problem-solve in a team-based environment,” Courtney Essenmacher said. “I find it is one of the very few programs that allows kids to do that, and (it) integrates areas of academia with the arts and community service. Many programs focus on technology especially, or on arts and theater especially, but not a lot of programs combine science and technology with helping the community.”

Elise Essenmacher said the fact that adults can’t interfere makes the program more challenging, but it allows the students to think through problems, since they know they have no safety net to help them.

Getting DI started in Berkley was meant to help students who need that extra challenge, Elise Essenmacher said, something she and her teammates sought out.

“We found some kids needed more of a challenge, and DI gives us that challenge,” she said. “DI takes all the different things we learn in school and combines that with technology and art. We get to do community service and tell stories and build things together.”

While the team allows the students to stretch what they are capable of now, Pattengill fifth-grader Corinne Jordan said she also views DI as a way to help prepare her for tackling difficult challenges in the future.

“I really think DI will help me in life, as we get to face challenges that other kids don’t,” she said. “It helps me be a better student and do better work. I wanted something that would tailor to my needs, and I think this helps prepare me for other challenges in life.”

For more information on the Berkley Destination Imagination team, including a link to its fundraising efforts, visit