A sea of blue T-shirts filled part of the lower bowl of seats Thursday at Memorial Auditorium, and the students wearing those shirts were enraptured by the gigantic, bucking beasts before them.
The 26th edition of SnowBull — a three-day, indoor rodeo — had just begun, and more than 60 Aldo Leopold Middle School students got to attend for free. For most of them, it was their first time at any kind of rodeo.
"I've never been either. That's how I got them (the students) on board. I was like 'Come on, it's our first time together," said Cree Gully, site coordinator for the PIECES before- and after-school program.
Thursday night was the culmination of a partnership between SnowBull, the PIECES program and KBKB 101.7-FM. Going by the hashtag BurlingtonStrong, the students starting selling the blue T-shirts to raise money for the program about three months ago. The BurlingtonStrong logo on their shirts peeked over the top of their coats as they entered the auditorium Thursday night.
"We've taken these kids on the radio. We've been pushing it (the PIECES program) to anyone who would support it," Gully said.
All that hard work paid off in the form of a $3,000 check presented by the SnowBull committee during Thursday's intermission. SnowBull picks a charitable cause to donate to each year, and this year, it was PIECES.
The PIECES program is in its fourth year, and the daily schedule includes a healthy snack, time for homework support, academic enrichment classes and opportunities for children to explore new interests. The idea is to form positive relationships, and to socialize with peers and caring adults.
"If you're behind in homework, you can catch up. If you have nothing to do at home, there's activities you can do," said 13-year-old Shia Reynolds.
There are around 70 students in the program right now, and they have their choice of attending the program before school, after school, or both. Exactly 57 Aldo students arrived at the rodeo en masse before the show began, with Gully leading the way.
"And we have more coming," Gully said.
When asked what they were expecting from the rodeo, most of the students gave the stock answer of "bulls." Maykayla Leivli, 13, was anticipating more than bulls.
"Loudness," she said.
The PIECES program is suitable for students at all levels, and the curriculum is individualized for each school to target the needs of its population. The goal is to complement school-day learning with hands-on, experiential enrichment classes aligned with Common Core standards.
The program runs at least four days a week before and after school, and that sometimes includes Saturday classes.