AYER -- One group of sixth-graders has thrown meaning and goodwill behind the typical middle-school dance, organizing one last Friday that raised more than $600 for special education.

Mackenzie Marshall, Riley Murphy, Juliana Nealy and Meghan Bupell wanted to raise money for the Melmark School in Andover, which Riley's older sister attends. The private school provides education for children with autism, brain injuries and other disorders.

"We decided to form a group to raise money for autism, and we decided a dance would be good to raise money for," said 11-year-old Marshall.

The girls spread the word throughout school, hanging posters and commissioning friends to help with set-up and clean-up. They also sold bracelets or $1 that offered students a discount on admission, and by Friday they had sold about 55.

The dance, held at Ayer Shirley Regional Middle School, featured raffle prizes and music from eighth-grade DJ Michael Kelly. Students were encouraged to wear blue, the color for autism awareness.

"I was kind of proud of them that they were sixth-graders trying to pull off this dance for autism awareness," said Sherry Marshall, Mackenzie's mother. "I thought they did a pretty good job."

The girls hope to do the same thing for autism awareness in the future, she said, but instead give the money to the district to use for special-education costs.


Like all sixth-graders at the school, the girls have gone through a United Way Youth Venture class, a program that encourages young students to help their communities in different ways.

Catherine Lyon, Youth Venture program coordinator and library media coordinator at the school, said the half-hour enrichment block has really become part of the school's culture. Another group of students, called the Blue Crew, decorated trees in a nearby park with blue lights with the goal of spreading autism awareness, she said.

"Kids are just interested in making changes in the world," she said. "We promote the idea that everyone is a change-maker, and they really run with it."