NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — It’s lunch time at Wickford Middle School in North Kingstown.
As students sit down in the cafeteria to eat, a few of their teachers and peers come in, dressed in costumes and ready to sing, dance, play music, lip sync and perform skits to entertain their audience, and more importantly, raise money for charity.
It can only mean one thing: it’s Thanksgiving time in Wickford.
For nearly 30 years, Wickford Middle School has held the Turkey Trot, an annual tradition that began as a simple food and donation drive and has since turned into a fun-filled competition among both staff and students to see who can raise the most money and be crowned Head Turkey and given the honor of leading the school on a trot around Wickford on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
“I think the Turkey Trot is a great way to show our students the importance of giving back,” Wickford Middle School Principal Brian Lally said. “I’m always so blown away and proud of our students and families for how generous they are each year.”
Since its inception in 1990, the Turkey Trot has raised a combined $71,143.34 for the North Kingstown Food Pantry to help provide turkeys and other food and supplies during the holidays for local families in need.
“When you look and you can give that much money to a charity like (the North Kingstown Food Pantry), everybody wins,” former Wickford Middle School Principal Terry Merkel said. “It’s a great thing, one of the best things I ever did.”
Each year, three staff members and three students from each of the school’s grade levels, sixth, seventh and eighth grade respectively, compete over a five-day period beginning a week before Thanksgiving to raise the most money. Fundraising is mainly held during the hour of the three lunch periods, but some teachers will also seek donations outside in the morning as parents and guardians drop off their children for the day.
The final tally of the donations is made on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when the staff Head Turkey and Head Turkeys for each grade are crowned ahead of the Turkey Trot itself, which is the final event of the school day.
Once someone is named Head Turkey, they are not allowed to run for it in the future, but can and often do participate by helping others seek the coveted poultry crown.
The first Turkey Trot at the school was held in 1990 as a can and donation drive created by the Student Council. After a two year hiatus, the Student Council decided to bring it back, and it has since become one of the school’s biggest traditions.
While donations started as both canned goods and money, eventually the event evolved into just money donations as the Boys Scouts hold a successful can drive around the same time.
For longtime teachers such as social studies teacher and 2009 Head Turkey Lynne Plotkin, whose been a part of the North Kingstown School District for 19 years, 16 years of which have been in Wickford, the evolution of the event over the years has been apparent.
“It’s definitely ramped up from when it first started to what it is now,” Plotkin said. “When I first started, people would do things like dress up and be a little silly, (but now) it has gotten to the point we have skits and props and all kinds of things that go on that are just hysterical and the kids love it.”
Science teacher Colleen Pickering has been at the school for every Turkey Trot. A 37-year veteran of WMS who ran for Head Turkey five times before being crowned in 2001, she recalls how different the event was in its earlier days.
“It was just the week before Thanksgiving, just three days, and you would just go down at lunch and it was just you,” Pickering said. “I borrowed a bass drum from the band room and put a brown piece of material and just cut a hole in it and put it over me so I was kind of looked like a turkey and I was playing it, walking around making noise at lunch and it was kind of simple like that.”
Then one year, one of the teachers in the running began collecting donations outside from the parents. and from there, Pickering said the teachers knew they’d have to one-up each other and the (friendly) competition was on.
From there, teachers began putting on skits and musical performances, dressing in a wide variety of costumes and adopting themes to make them stand out the most, and by doing so, collect the most in donations.
“The year I won I was the Barbie theme,” Pickering said. “I was a Barbie from different generations, so I was a ‘50s Barbie, a ‘60s Barbie and so on, so I had to put on the different makeup and heels and had to clean up and then go back to teach again.”
“So the year I ran.. (my theme was) ‘Dancing Through The Decades,’ so I started with the ’50s, ’50s music and costume and then I went to ’60s, ’70s, then I did ’80s Madonna and I ended with Lady Gaga,” Plotkin said.
Eventually this spread to the students as well, and today performances have moved on from just skits and dancing to setting up carnival games with prizes for their fellow students.
“Now you go down there and there’s planned out dances and games and all kinds of things that it’s just so much fun, it really is,” Plotkin said. “Eighth graders are used to it so they know what’s going on, but it’s funny to see the sixth graders because they’re like ‘We can do this at lunch? What is this?’”
Teachers also help each other out, whether its helping perform or create skits or volunteering to watch their classes while they raise money during the lunch block. Since the teacher or student that goes first usually tends to receive the most donations, they rotate the order each day.
Live music has also often been a part of the Turkey Trot, with a band featuring some of the music teachers such as band teacher Michael Iadevaia playing drums.
The 2008 Head Turkey, Iadevaia said obtaining the honor is hard work.
“(It’s) a lot of work, it’s a lot more work than you’d think and you’re exhausted by the end of that last day because you’ve had to put on that show for three lunches for five days plus you’re teaching,” Iadevaia said, but to him and the other teachers, it’s still worth all of it.
“Everyone’s invested in helping and it’s all for a great cause: raising money for the food pantry,” he said.
Over the year that money has risen from a couple hundred dollars to a few thousand, with recent years raking in close to $6,000 in a five day stretch.
In addition, the teachers said its great to watch the school come together and see things such as a shy student flourish in front of a crowd and see the creativity of their fellow staff and students or see familiar faces from years gone past line up in Wickford to watch them trot.
“I’ll run into students that are home from college, they’ll be like “Mrs. Plotkin, I remember the Turkey Trot!,’” Plotkin said.
It also can help create a fond memory during what can be a challenging time for many young adults.
“Anything you can look back to and have a smile, because middle school can definitely be... one of those ‘ugh’ times in your life, you feel you’re at you most awkward and it’s so difficult so if you think back to middle school and smile, I think that’s a great thing,” Plotkin said.
For the teachers, it also creates fond memories.
“One year one of the students brought in his parents’ check and he kind of teased me about it, like which bucket was he going to put it in, and he put it in the opposing person’s bucket,” Iadevaia said.
“It was a $100 check, so it was a nice donation but I ended up that amount short that year,” he added laughing.
Teachers who win Head Turkey also receive a commemorative piece of clothing, which evolved from t-shirts with a turkey sewn on to full-fledged embroidered sweatshirts. Nearly every Head Turkey still knows where to find theirs, whether it’s in their classroom or at home, and still wear them with pride.
“I tell the kids (about how I won 2001 Head Turkey) and they go ‘that shirt’s older than me!,’” Pickering said.
The Turkey Trot has become essential to the Wickford Middle School experience, something which is on everyone’s mind almost as soon as the school year begins, for which the teachers, students and community are grateful for.
“We are very lucky to live in a community that teachers youngsters to help take care of those in need,” North Kingstown Food Pantry Vice President Richard Jaques said.
“It’s such good, clean fun that the kids just love it, we love it, so it’s just a nice feeling and it just plays right into Thanksgiving and just what Thanksgiving is about,” Plotkin said.
“The Turkey Trot is one of my favorite events each year and I look forward to continuing this special tradition for years to come,” Lally said.
Those with connections to the Wickford Middle School community can help out by giving money or writing out checks to the North Kingstown Food Bank and giving them to the teachers or students they know. Others are encouraged to directly donate to the North Kingstown Food Pantry directly.