GREENVILLE — The staff at Walnut Hills Elementary School noticed a troubling trend with the female students.
While walking down the hallway or playing during recess, young students were making disparaging remarks about their own appearances.
During a regularly scheduled meeting, school staff discussed how more and more female students were calling themselves “fat.” The teachers and paraprofessionals recognized a need to intervene with positive re-enforcement.
The staff realized the girls needed positive direction, but in a casual setting with peers and mentors alike. Out of the meeting was born “Project Bloom,” a new confidence-building program that is funded through an educational grant.
The staff hit the ground running and formed its first group of fourth and fifth grade students in February 2013. The girls and mentors meet every Wednesday immediately after school in Alicia Zank’s fifth-grade classroom, where challenges and issues facing young girls are discussed and ideas are formed to help boost self-esteem.
“This has been our first full year and the turnout has been great,” Zank said. “We have just more than 30 girls involved.”
The gatherings always begin with a healthy snack, where the girls sit with smaller groups of four or five students. The mentors develop a theme for each month and the discussion each Wednesday is centered about that particular topic. The theme for March is bullying.
Mentor Madison Kartes gave a presentation and lead a discussion about bullying, both in the real world and online.
Among the students who participate in Project Bloom are Sabryna Wireman, Kiley Anderson and Chloe Ortiz. Wireman and Ortiz are fifth grade students and Anderson is in fourth grade. All three girls enjoy the strong sense of camaraderie that has been formed throughout the school year in Project Bloom.
“People don’t judge based on looks; they care about what’s on the inside,” Wireman said. “What I really liked was when we defined the word ‘selfie’ and talked about why we take selfies and how they have to be perfect.”
Wireman enjoys spending time with her friends in Project Bloom and playing outside. She also enjoys playing with her sisters, though she admits that reading is her favorite hobby, above all.
“I think with it being just girls, we can say anything and not be judged,” Anderson said. “We can trust each other and have very good friends in here.”
Anderson, like Wireman, enjoyed the discussion about selfies because it focused on taking a photo of the features the girls didn’t like about themselves, which they’ve learned to see the image in a more positive light.
“When I’m an adult and working, I would love to be a Project Bloom teacher,” Anderson said. “I would have to do it with my friend, Sabryna.”
Oritz hopes to develop strong self confidence after being part of Project Bloom. Just as her classmates mentioned, Ortiz enjoyed attending a workshop hosted at Grand Valley State University (GVSU).
“Every BODY is beautiful” was hosted by students and faculty members from GVSU’s physician assistant department in conjunction with the Michigan Eating Disorders Alliance.
“It’s just about learning to be nice to others, learning confidence and what’s beautiful about me,” Ortiz said.
Learning life skills isn’t limited to the students who are part of Project Bloom. Zank admitted to adjusting how she thinks of herself, as well, and is now careful when selecting words. While not making negative remarks about anyone, Zank realized that her words about herself set an example for girls she and the other mentors oversee in the program.
“I feel I was very fortunate and never felt targeted by anyone, but I do remember a boy I considered a friend who made a comment, in a joking way,” Zank said. “I still remember what he said, how he said it and in what class it was said in.”
It is how those remarks can affect someone that reminds Zank how important it is to mentor young women to be self confident and thoughtful of others’ feelings.
In the two school years that Project Bloom has been a part of Walnut Hills, Zank has witnessed how many of the girls have come out of their shells and used the skills they have learned. Zank is the driving force behind Project Bloom and is the first to say the undertaking has been rewarding and certainly successful due to the dedication of the staff who are mentors. The team is made of teachers, paraprofessionals, speech therapist, social workers and the school principal.
Based on the response Project Bloom has received at Walnut Hills and the positive impact it has had on its participants, Zank would love to see similar programs started at all of the schools in the district. Zank recognizes that such an undertaking requires dedication and that each program would be unique to the people who oversee it.
“Project Bloom has been a team effort in our building,” Zank said. “What we have here is really special.”