While most kids play sports or are otherwise involved after school, about 30 Niagara Falls High School seniors gather in Room 114 to knit afghan squares on Thursday afternoons.
It's not just a bunch of girls hoping to sit in rocking chairs and knit when they've grown old.
On Thursday, more than five boys and 20 girls showed up to wield knitting needles and make 9-inch squares of acrylic yarn that eventually will be sewn together by a Hamburg knitters guild into afghan blankets for terminal cancer patients at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
The program started three weeks ago after Jackie Kontrabecki, the mother of high school English teacher Amy Chiarella, discovered the Knit Forward project run by Bonnie Campbell at Roswell Park. The program has volunteers and cancer patients knit squares while they are visiting the hospital to help create the afghan blankets.
Battling stage four breast cancer, Kontrabecki, 56, said she started to knit the squares while her husband, Al, 61, was being treated in Roswell Park for prostate cancer and thought it would make a good community service project for kids at her alma mater, Niagara Falls High School.
"It's a great project for them since they have to do 10 hours of community service their senior year. I thought they could learn to knit and do their community service for a good cause," she said, noting that it takes 10 hours to complete a 9-inch square.
She said she asked her daughter about it, found school officials welcomed the idea and agreed to count student efforts toward fulfilling their community service requirement. So she started the program.
In three weeks, Chiarella said the students have cranked out about a dozen squares with many more in different stages of development. Kontrabecki said the program will continue each Thursday "as long as the students want to keep doing it."
Students say they like it and have named their knitting program "Knot 4Me," meeting for two hours every Thursday afternoon in Chiarella's classroom to knit and chat under the guidance of Kontrabecki and Chiarella. A number of students also know how to knit and are helping teach their classmates.
Many participants have relatives who either have cancer or have died from it.
"I like the idea. I have an uncle dying from cancer, so I really feel strongly about it and think this is a good way to help out and do something nice," said Chandra Knotts, 16.
Chandra said she likes the project so much that she even does her knitting during study halls and while she pays attention "during discussions in English class."
"I'm doing it for the community service hours. But I also have some incentive because my grandmother died from breast cancer," said Demetrius Caffee, 18.
Michelle Granieri, 16, said, "I've always enjoyed helping people out. So doing something like this makes me feel good. I also wanted to learn how to knit. So I came here and my friend, Kelly [O'Brien, 17] taught me. It's fun when you can do something like this and be with your friends.
"My grandmother passed away from breast cancer before I was born and I have other people in my family that have died from cancer," she added.
David McDougald, 17, began learning how to knit Thursday. "I need to do 10 hours of community service and this is one way to do it. It's a good cause . . . My aunt died from breast cancer a few years ago. So I have a good reason to do it. But I have to admit, I'm not too good at knitting."
His friend Nicholas Barbaro, 17, said he also showed up "for the community service credit. But it's going to take me a lot more than 10 hours [to complete a square] though since I'm just learning to do this."
Lauren Grana, 17, a talented knitter, signed up because "I like to knit. It's very relaxing and it's for a good cause." She's also coaching her classmates.
Megan Tweed, 17, said "I did it when I found out Mrs. Chiarella's mom had cancer and I wanted to learn something new. I'm just learning to knit and have started over a million times. But I'm starting to get the hang of it."
Each student who volunteered for the program agreed to make one square to fulfill their community service requirement, Kontrabecki said.