“Why You Matter” More Important Than Ever, Plans Year Three Kickoff: “Common Threads”

By Seth Kinker, skinker@thesuntimesnews.com

The “Why You Matter” campaign was started at Chelsea schools three years ago by two Chelsea teachers in a response to the death of three students, one in a car accident and two by suicide.

Laura Naar and Geo Rutherford were both art teachers at the time and wanted to address the problem through what they knew best, artistic expression. They had the idea to photograph every student and teacher and write why they mattered to help students deal with grief and focus on their own self-worth.

Initially, it wasn’t planned to run past the first year, but on Jan. 31, year three of the “Why You Matter” campaign will kick off after the effect the program has had since its first year.

Chelsea High School Principal Mike Kapolka expounded on the program that has become student driven as the campaign has grown.

“It’s student voice and choice,” said Kapolka. “I’ve seen that improve after the first initial meeting (three years ago). Laura and Geo were really steering and navigating but the students were doing a lot of the conversations and production. That’s the one takeaway from year one to two to this year. Highlighting, supporting and giving kids an opportunity to highlight their voice and choice. That’s why I think it’s been impactful and worked. Going into year one, we never thought about the idea for year two. We felt it was impactful because kids came back and asked what we were doing for year two.”

On Jan. 17, the leadership team for the campaign met to hash out their final plans for the program this year after finding their theme, “Common Threads.”

The leadership team started with counselor Jason Murphy, Naar, Rutherford, and Kapolka.

Rutherford has since moved on from the district but this year the team added Laura Woodruff and Laura Lutz, two social studies teachers at Chelsea high school.

“We are going to start with another speaker series focusing on connections and all the things connections bring us and the things that sometimes keep us from connecting with others,” said Naar on plans for year three as speaker series, reflections, and another art project, similar to the format for year two, are in the works. “Topics such as speaking up, sometimes you just have to show up and be there for others, sometimes you have to let yourself be helped. They all relate to relationships and how we are all feeling the same things, even if we feel alone. We have a couple school-wide activities and an art project at the end.”

One of the things that affected the plans for year three was the reason for the continued need for the program. Two Chelsea students, one a former student and one a current student, took their lives this year which led to the leadership team readdressing year three.

“We had to take a sharp turn,” said Kapolka. “We had the idea 4-5 months ago with the common threads theme but had to turn it a little bit with the losses. Part of the process for the speaker series and different sessions with students with teachers is actually talking through grief, talking about loss. Going into this, we didn’t anticipate having this being some of the focus but we thought it was absolutely appropriate. Our school is hurting and we need to heal.”

“The biggest thing from year to year is talking to students at the beginning and seeing what they think the need is,” added Naar on what has changed over the years about the campaign. “We could talk about what we might think is a problem with this or that and the students are like ‘No, this is what’s really happening. This is what you have to address.’ Really listening to them is the most important thing. Just from the recent tragedies that happened, we had all this stuff planned out and we were like students need to do this now, that’s our U turn. We had to figure it out. It’s just listening to the kids.”

After the year one motto of “Why You Matter,” year two was “What’s Your Why?”

A speaker series in a “Ted-Talk” style had teachers tell their stories about how they discovered their “why” and also included videos from students that had their “why” as well.

In addition to the speaker series they also wanted to something to do with public art, this led to prayer flags illustrating their “why” visually. These flags were hung in downtown Chelsea after a local business owner mentioned wanting to fill his alleyway with the flags.

After meeting with the Why You Matter student committee in light of the recent deaths, the Jan. 17 meeting was to take and organize that input so they can still touch on the topics they want to talk about while making sure it’s doable and comfortable for students and teachers alike.

“We’re hashing out activities, timelines, lesson plans, things like that,” said Naar. “We have to make sure its relevant to the kids, if it’s not what they need, then it’s going to be for nothing.”

Seth Kinker

Reporter/Digital Media for The Sun Times News

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