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Pine Hollow Middle School students Sarah Mirabella, 13, Kayla Confetti, 14, Emma Ramirez, 14, Carlie Beeson, 14, Jenny Vonnegut, 14, Kelsey Turner, 14, and Jordan Steinberg, 13, smile with their medals and trophy in Concord, Calif., on Friday, May 9, 2014. The girls spent the afternoon packing up their backdrops and props for their competition at the World Finals in Iowa on May 28-31. The students placed second in the 2014 Odyssey of the Mind California State Finals. Odyssey of the Mind is an international educational competition for students of all ages that helps them develop important skills in problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork, math, engineering, science, language, visual and performing arts. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

The collective creative energy of seven Pine Hollow Middle School students, pooled in an eight-minute, Odyssey of the Mind skit, represents promise, possibility ... and a problem.

Odyssey of the Mind allows students from kindergarten through college, to solve problems using critical thinking, math, science, writing, engineering, and language and performing arts.

Qualifying to compete in the international education program's world finals at Iowa State University in late May, after wining the second-place berth at the state competition last month, the Concord team's performance earned glowing comments from the judges.

"Understandable," "divergent thinking," were the reactions 13-year-old Sarah Mirabella recalls hearing. "They thought we were funny and the skit flowed naturally."

Erick Mirabella, Sarah's father and the team's coach, says he was thrilled, especially after a mix-up last year resulted in a disappointing finish. "The ideas came out naturally with this group," he says. "I saw leaders develop in front of my eyes."

In his third year, Mirabella has learned in the same way Odyssey teams solve one of the five problems they select for competition: by trial and error. Odyssey parent coaches are tasked with staying on the fringes, offering prompts, but not directives.

"I learned patience and to let them do their thing," Mirabella says. "It turned out fantastic. Giving them a long leash -- they relished in those moments and did fine."

Perhaps the hardest part, other than the considerable commitment of time required to shepherd a team through the program, was getting the girls to focus.

"They're such good friends, it wasn't hard for them to work together, it was hard for them to work at all," he says, laughing. "They were preoccupied with their phones, music, boys."

Sarah says belief in their skit helped them persevere through intense periods, when two weeks of work could be completed in a single session. (Her father says blitz-like meetings were "crazy," and credits the contributions of the other parents as "absolutely essential.")

The team chose "Problem 3: It's How We Rule," challenging them to create a short play with a King's Court based on actual history, and a Royal Court of their own design. Rules, relating to decrees, characters, props, music and regulations, like spending only $125 on materials used in the performance, added hurdles to the task.

"We chose King Henry's court, because he was into music, and the made-up court was an animal kingdom," Sarah says.

All forms of music -- singing, humming, whistling and snapping fingers -- were banned in the historical kingdom: meat-eating was forbidden by decree in the animal kingdom.

"The animals were eating each other and fighting," Sarah explains.

As puppet master, she manipulated a lion, a zebra, and the "peoplet," a person portraying a puppet. A musical instrument the group named "Carlie-Bow," after its inventor, team member Carlie Beeson, was made with a piece of wood, painted blue, with two spaghetti sauce jars attached with wires. The drum-guitar hybrid instrument's one string was hit or plucked with wooden sticks.

"A pregnant queen asks for ostrich eggs, zebra ribs and llama milk, because she's hungry," Sarah says, sharing a favorite part. "Just One Bad Decree," is just one of the songs in the play's dramatic finale.

Working together allowed individual team members to contribute their talents, from wielding electric drills to backdrops produced using computer-manipulated images.

Now, faced with a $14,000 cost to get the girls and chaperones to the world competition, problem-solving creativity is running full blast.

"Garage, rummage and bake sales; direct appeals to Kiwanis, Lions Club and Rotary; door-to-door distribution of fliers to businesses in Clayton," Mirabella says, listing the group's fundraising efforts.

A GoFundMe and PayPal campaign have been established, although the former's eight percent cut and the latter's three percent take of all proceeds causes him to say, "Best of all: tax-deductible donations can be made to the Pine Hollow PTSA, too. We'll be proud to represent the community, with their help."

The team, unafraid of complex problems demanding "divergent thinking" and riding high from their recent victory, is tackling the financial obstacle in the usual manner. "We all pitch in," Sarah says, "and we get it done."

odyssey trip
  • Tax-deductible donations can be made to Pine Hollow PTSA, 5522 Pine Hollow Road, Concord, CA 94521. Any amount is welcome to help the team get to Iowa State University for the World Finals competition to represent our community.
  • Additional fundraising options are:
    http://www.gofundme.com/85njsk
    https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=25ZEQPKWZHVQ8