EXTRACURRICULAR CREATIONS

Mississippi Knights’ event makes inventors of Catholic school kids

Give each of 40 adolescents a bag of random objects to build something with, and what do you get? A whole lot of creative contraptions, that’s what.

That’s the objective of the Creative Contraptions Contest at St. Patrick School in Meridian, Miss., sponsored annually for the past 28 years by Knights of Columbus Council 802.

Forty students in grades 4 through 6 participated in the event’s most recent incarnation last fall, with several Knights on hand to judge the competition and award the $10 movie gift cards to each grade’s first-place winner.

“The kids are only limited by what their imaginations can create,” said PGK John Harwell, who coordinates the event in addition to serving as youth director of the Catholic Community of Meridian, which includes the twinned St. Joseph and St. Patrick parishes. Among the creative contraptions produced last fall were arcade games, a kaleidoscope, a windmill farm, a monster, a robot, a bobblehead, and iPhone.

The tradition all began in 1992 when BK Frank Polizzi was the council’s youth chairman. “We had been conducting the Columbus Day Poster Contest for grades 3 through 6, and he was looking to expand the program with something different for the older students to do,” Harwell said. After consultation with St. Patrick’s then-principal, Linda Nause, the idea for the Creative Contraption Contest was conceived.

The event plays out in a couple of stages. During the third week of September 2019, the 40 students who participated were each given a bag of identical items and a set of simple instructions. They are encouraged (but not required) to use every item, but they cannot add any items to the collection. They can mount their contraption on a block of wood, cardboard, or paper, but they cannot paint, color, or mark any piece. Adhesives may be used, and the student needs to explain his or her contraption to the judges.

Two weeks later, the students brought their completed contraptions for judging and interviews, and the judges arrived at a consensus on selections for first place, second place, third place, and honorable mention for each grade level.

“Every year it is very difficult, and 2019 was no different,” Harwell said of the judging process. “Almost all of the contraptions were well done.”

The awards were presented during a school assembly in mid-October at which each winner was presented with a certificate suitable for framing.

“Last year there were 67 items in each container,” Harwell said. He solicits items to be donated by brother Knights months in advance, and by September he will purchase items such as craft sticks, dowels, and poms to round out the kits. The kits vary from year to year based on what is donated.

“Each year is different, and that is part of the fun of the activity,” said Harwell.

Last fall’s kits included red cups, screws, paper clips, ear plugs, hinges, index cards, rubber bands, clothespins, cable ties, and clamps. Some unusual items included coffee containers, gold CDs, blue rope, pink rope, and a fleur-de-lis. Harwell’s wife, Bridget, and daughter, Serena Harwell Sanders, worked for several hours putting the kits together.

“It was and is a very meticulous process because each kit has to be exactly the same,” Harwell said.

What’s rewarding, he noted, is to see some students excel who don’t usually stand out in school.

“One of the winners this year was a child who struggles academically,” Harwell said. “However, this child is very creative, and this contest gave them a chance to shine and be first in something.”

He thanked Mrs. Montse Frias, St. Patrick’s principal, for her support of the competition. “She especially is glad that this gives all of the kids an opportunity to do something outside the box that is fun, rewarding and also memorable,” he said.

“Overall, it is one of our most successful council programs,” Harwell affirmed. “It is something that we look forward to each year.”