NEW KENT — After 41 years of teaching, New Kent High School ceramics teacher Susan Musselman is blunt with her assessment of high schoolers.
"I tell them all the time, 'You guys all live in your own heads,'" she said. "Until you give them something to sink their teeth into."
Musselman's most recent project for her students to sink their teeth into has raised $851 to feed people in New Kent County.
Since the beginning of the school year, a dozen students spent time on weekends and after school making pottery. On Nov. 9 a website with 70 bowls for sale went live, and the bidding began — $5 minimum for an initial bid, or $30 maximum to purchase a bowl outright — with all proceeds going to the New Kent County Social Services Food Pantry.
On Thursday, Dec. 10 Musselman's students held a "Check and Chili" night at the high school where bowl purchasers could pick up their bowl and enjoy free chili and paella.
High school senior Jemalyn Harvey said when "Muzz" (Musselman) proposed the idea, they jumped on board right away.
"We love making things and being crafty, so it was a great way for us to do that stuff and help out the community as well," she said.
The group of potters ranged from freshmen to seniors. Some had taken every art class they could while others had never been in a high school art class.
Musselman said once the bidding began, she would check the website nightly to see which bowls had sold. She said women tended to pay $30 to buy the bowl outright and avoid being outbid, whereas men tended to get drawn into bidding wars.
Two of the men who, unbeknownst to them, got into a bidding war over a bowl with one another were Superintendent David Myers and Director of Curriculum Byron Bishop.
That kind of support from school administrators is what makes teaching in New Kent special, Mussleman said.
"You don't get that in a bigger school system," said Musselman, adding that without the help of technology resource teacher Nick Cammarano, who built the website, the project would not have been possible.
Support came from outside the New Kent community as well. Rosewood Pottery Studio in Richmond supplied the clay, glaze and kiln time, all of which was valued at more than $300, Musselman said.
This is the second year students have raised funds for the food pantry through the project. Musselman was motivated to raise money when she learned the pantry does not receive state or federal funding and is fully dependent on donations.
This past spring, students raised $745, which was also donated to social services.
Jon Martz, the director of Social Services, said the money raised by the project was used to buy grocery store giftcards so clients could buy perishable goods that social services is not able to stock in the food pantry.
In order to better understand the role of social services in the county, Martz and social services eligibility supervisor Tiffany Elam came in and spoke to the group.
"It was an eye opener for the kids," Martz said. "They think about social services being here to steal my child or give welfare, but there is so much more that we do."
Musselman said understanding the wide array of programs that social services runs is beneficial to students at a school like New Kent High, where students from an array of points on the economic spectrum attend.
"We are a school of 965, so the chance that you are sitting at a table or working next to someone who has had to use social services before is high," Musselman said.
In addition to benefiting the county's food pantry and expanding student's perspective, freshman Jamie Stewart said the project was an encouragement to young potters who saw their parents and teachers getting into bidding wars over their wares.
"It's kind of cool to know that people like my stuff," she said.
McKinnon can be reached at 804-885-0031.