EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
BURNET — While the $2,500 check and national recognition were nice, Burnet Middle School eighth-grader Ileanna Villalobos wasn’t entranced by either. The Interact Club president knows the biggest reward of the Start With Hello program is how it transformed students across the campus.
“At our school, it’s recognized the amount of people who are alone,” she said. “But people didn’t know how to help and they didn’t know how to start to help with that. Start With Hello, it gave us the things we needed to change that.
“It empowered us,” Villalobos added.
During a Feb. 7 assembly, Sandy Hook Promise founder Nicole Hockley helped Burnet Middle School students kick off Start With Hello week, five days dedicated to helping kids and staff create an inclusive atmosphere.
On May 17, Hockley and Paula Fynboh, also with Sandy Hook Promise, returned to the school to recognize it as the best campus in the country this year for its Start With Hello program.
“It hits me really hard in my heart, in a positive way,” Hockley told the students.
She also told them they are creating something that is sustainable.
“You’re the ones who did it. You’re the ones who owned it,” Hockley said.
Sandy Hook Promise and its Start With Hello program came from tragedy, one that struck Hockley personally. On Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Adam Lanza walked onto campus and murdered 20 student and six staff members, including Hockley’s 6-year-old son, Dylan.
Instead of collapsing on themselves, several Sandy Hook family members created Sandy Hook Promise to help prevent tragedies such as school shootings, suicides, and other violence born out of social isolation and exclusion.
Start With Hello outlines simple things schools and organizations can do to help create a more inclusive environment. Burnet Middle School implemented a number of things, including a Mix It Up Lunch and Human Bingo.
Then, there are the T-shirts with “Start With Hello” emblazoned across them. During the initial assembly, just about every student and staff member wore one.
Once the week was over, they didn’t stash them away.
“A lot of kids kept wearing them,” said Interact Club sponsor and teacher Sara Te. “You know, not everybody does, but many kids do. … We see them every day, and that’s a great reminder.”
While it’s difficult to measure the success of a program such as Start With Hello based on hard data, Villalobos said she’s witnessed a change in many students. They’re more likely to reach out to someone they don’t know, sit with someone at lunch who is by themselves, or just say “hello” to a student with whom they don’t usually hang out.
“It’s some of that simple, small stuff, but it makes a difference,” she said.
Te admitted she’s not seen a big wave sweep through the campus since they began Start With Hello, but she can describe at least two, more intimate encounters between students. One middle school girl had apparently made a comment on social media that she planned to harm herself, but when another student read the post, the second student alerted adults to the situation. Te said they were able to get the first girl help.
A second situation involved a student who has apparently been cutting herself for a period of time, and one friend was aware of it but hadn’t alerted an adult.
“She really didn’t know what to do,” Te said of the student who knew of her friend’s cutting. “But after (Start With Hello), she felt empowered to take that step and get (the girl) help.”
One of the things that caught Hockley’s and Fynboh’s attention in February was the number of local businesses that were showing their support for the program by putting up “Burnet Starts with Hello” or “Start With Hello” on their signs and marquees. It showed, they said, how the school had taken the program off campus and into the community.
Even Villalobos found this uplifting.
“It makes me feel like our community, businesses, and corporations see how important (Start With Hello’s mission) was to us and how it’s also something the community can do,” she said.
As the school year comes to an end, it would be easy to let Start With Hello and the initiative slip into the past, but Villalobos, the Interact Club, the middle school, and Te are already looking to next school year’s program. Te and Villalobos are attending the Sandy Hook Promise and Start With Hello gala in Washington, D.C., on June 14.
“We already have things planned for next year and on the calendar,” Te said.
The first few weeks of school, she hopes to get students to wear name tags around campus, simply so kids will learn each other’s names. The campus also plans to implement Sandy Hook Promise’s Say Something program.
Villalobos and other eighth-grade Interact Club leaders have already been helping prepare the upcoming seventh-grade leaders to continue the program. As she enters high school, Villalobos aims to take the message with her to Burnet High School.
The Burnet Middle School was among 1,900 schools across the country that held a Start With Hello program, and when Sandy Hook Promise officials reviewed the various reports, the Burnet campus was the top one. But, Villalobos, Te, and Hockley each pointed out that wasn’t the reason for Start With Hello; it was the long-reaching impact it could have for the students and community.
“These are the people who are going to make the changes in our society,” Hockley said. “This is the generation that’s talking about kindness and being inclusive. It starts here with students like these and at schools like (Burnet Middle School).”
During her February visit, Hockley shared the story of her son, Dylan, who was autistic. He would often flap his arms, something she described as like a butterfly. She told the kids about the “butterfly effect,” a theory that when a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world, that little action can eventually affect the weather on the other side of the globe.
She reminded the students of that when she returned May 17.
“You know my son, Dylan, is a butterfly,” she said. “I know you are all Bulldogs, but to me, you’re all butterflies.”
Go to sandyhookpromise.org for more information.