In honor of Sandy Hook Promise's "Start With Hello Week," the Poland Local School District spent the week of Feb. 6-10 brining attention to the growing epidemic of social isolation in the schools and communities.
The program, started by Sandy Hook Promise, was an effort geared to promoting inclusion, empowering children and preventing isolation in schools. Schools and youth organizations across the nation participated by raising awareness and educating students with training, activities and contests.
Sandy Hook Promise is a nonprofit organization founded and led by family members whose loved ones were killed in the tragic mass shooting Dec. 14, 2012, at the elementary school. Based in Newton, Conn., the organization focuses on honoring the victims of gun violence through programs and practices that encourage protecting children and preventing further tragedies - such as crime, suicide and accidental discharge.
Fifth-grader Jake Wrataric goes over some printed questions with fifth-grader Nina Gordon that helps break the ice and starts a conversation during the wrap up of “Start With Hello Week” Feb. 10, also called “No One Eats Alone Day,” at McKinley Elementary School. All students selected table numbers from a cup when entering the cafeteria and then sat with random students they may not have known well. It allowed them to make new friends and ensure that “no one ate alone.”
Photo by J.T. Whitehouse / Town Crier
Sandy Hook Promise transformed the tragedy into a movement of parents, schools and community organizations that deliver gun violence prevention programs and promote the passage of state and national policy.
According to the effort, there are students all over the world that suffer from loneliness throughout the school day and it is often highlighted during lunch time or when friends gather. The organization said young people who are isolated often become the victims of bullying, violence or depression.
"Start With Hello Week" is a growing national effort to cultivate connectedness in the classroom, schools and throughout the community. Poland guidance counselor Lauren Mechling said too many young people feel left out, invisible and alone, and this often can lead to serious mental health problems.
The overall aim of "Start With Hello Week" was to teach kids how to reach out and include everyone.
The school counselors expanded the message by reaching out the community. To kick the week off, Poland Village Council also named Feb. 6-10 "Start With Hello Week" and hung a large banner stating that in front of village hall. Many local businesses also jumped on board by adding the message "Hello, Poland" to their marquees.
In the schools, the week was full of fun activities that brought the message home. Signing pledges, wearing specific clothing, presentations, and arts and crafts projects filled the school buildings for students from kindergarten to high school.
The theme Feb. 8 was "Poland pride," and the Poland Bulldogs mascot visited the elementary schools to say hello and invited the students to the girls varsity and junior varsity basketball games that night.
Poland Rotarians also visited last week, and the 25 members stopped by classrooms to sing patriotic songs and join the students for lunch. The students then presented club members with thank you cards.
Members of Big Dogs-Little Dogs, PANDA Club, athletic teams and cheerleading squads also showed support by spreading the message of inclusion.
On Feb. 9, the students were encouraged to wear their favorite sports team apparel, showing that they are all "a part of a team."
All the schools wrapped up the week Feb. 10 with "Super Hero Day." McKinley Elementary School students dressed in their favorite super hero clothing. The students also were assigned to random tables at lunch and provided fun and engaging questions to meet someone new and reach out to others. The effort was known as "No One Eats Alone Day," a Sandy Hook Promise program that acts as an ice breaker exercise and encourages inclusion during lunchtime.
"It was all about making connections," school counselor Mary Jo Lukach said. "We came up with a question sheet students could use to ask each other."
The McKinley PTO helped out as well by providing balloons and smiley face cookies for the kids.
While the week was filled with special color days and exercises to promote unity, one of the important activity was the "Cultivating Connectedness in the Classroom" Skyping sessions that occurred throughout the week.
The Poland students were allowed to Skype with their peers from other local schools with the hope of creating an open dialogue. It explored the problem of social isolation and helped the students brainstorm about how "Start With Hello Week" can make a lasting impact.
Though "Start With Hello Week" and "No One Eats Alone Day" are officially over, Sandy Hook Promise said people can take steps every day to combat social isolation in schools and communities.