Impact in Profile: Caroline Waters, Maya Montell, Allison Vandal and Emily Bengels

Impact in Profile: Caroline Waters, Maya Montell, Allison Vandal and Emily Bengels

When eighth-grader Allison Vandal saw a classmate run into the classroom crying, she did the best thing she could think of to help: She wrote the classmate a poem about the power of words. That simple act of kindness would soon grow into something much bigger.

Along with her friends and classmates Maya Montell and Caroline Waters, Allison started the Poets Undercover Guild (PUG), a society at Readington Middle School in New Jersey where students give or receive poetry to each other to build an inclusive community within the school.

“When you spread the message of love rather than the message of hate you can affect an entire area of people with the power to combat the hatred,” Allison said.

The three made a video about their good deed and submitted it to the IWitness Video Challenge. Their project took first place in the national competition, and as a result they will share a $5,000 scholarship prize.

The students were inspired by testimony from the Visual History Archive. One clip featured in their video is of a Holocaust survivor who wrote a poem while in a concentration camp and carried it around with her for weeks. Another is a survivor reciting poetry to help listeners better connect to what she suffered.

“I can never know what she went through, but this gets me closer to it because I can imagine her pain through the metaphors,” Maya said of the effect the testimony had on her.

Maya, Allison, and Caroline created the video as part of teacher Emily Bengels’s enrichment class. Though she does not assign the project to everyone, Bengels said she saw something special in these three students.

“I had been thinking about ways to incorporate the IWitness Challenge with my students, and then this group of three passionate young ladies struck me as perfect candidates to give it a try,” she said.

Though she had faith in them, even Bengels was surprised by what a hit the PUG became.

“In this day and age, who would have thought poetry would get so big?” she said.

The club started with six eighth-graders at the start of the 2015-16 school year, and grew to at least 20 by year’s end. The 45-plus poems written over the course of the year were sent to their recipients in various forms – on a slip paper, in an email, even via text message.

Allison said she remembers all too well the day her friend came into the classroom upset.

 “Some kids were calling her rude names,” she said. “Kids she didn’t know in the hallway were using very foul and abusive language. It was an ongoing thing that was really hurting her.”

Wanting to do something, Allison wrote the girl a poem.

“The next day she gave me a huge hug and told me it really helped,” Allison said. The recipient went on to write poems for other kids who were feeling down or bullied.

The poetry club came about organically.

“Allison and I are both writers,” said Caroline. “It’s something we both love to do. I think our first reaction when we heard about our friend’s trouble was, ‘Oh, let’s just write about it.’”

The third founder, Maya, is the member of the group with an interest in film.

“It feels really amazing to win,” Maya said.  “It’s so cool to see it blow up bigger than I ever imagined. It’s so cool to watch and see their organization grow.”

Though their time with the PUG is almost up, Maya, Allison, and Caroline are excited about the legacy they will leave at Readington Middle School.

“We are graduating, but the younger kids will have this society for years to come,” Caroline said.