STANTON — Surrounded by students she has mentored, guided and influenced throughout this past year, Laurie Stewart could only smile while shedding a few tears as she came to a realization Thursday evening.
“They don’t need me anymore,” she said. “They are definitely using their peer influence to help other people and they are making it sustainable.”
That was the goal from the beginning — to create a new, positive culture in Montcalm County.
Stewart, a professional speaker, was hired by the Montcalm Area Intermediate School District (MAISD) last year to help instruct a countywide program titled “Making it Cool to be Kind.” The program was implemented and taught to students who would eventually work on their own to maintain a new culture focused on trust, commitment, accountability and positive interactions.
Stewart helped form “climate teams” at all seven public school districts in the county consisting of a few students in each group. Throughout the past year students have worked with Stewart through meetings, school assemblies, and even individual conversations at student convenience, to work together to find a way to establish a new culture throughout Montcalm County.
“People feel like they can be the person they were meant to be,” Stewart said. “They can come to a place where people have each other’s back, instead of talking behind each other’s back.”
In the form of a community celebration Thursday evening at Central Montcalm Middle School, the students from each climate team, along with many supporters, gathered to give a final presentation on their accomplishments.
Central Montcalm Public School Superintendent Kristi Teall said there was no doubt a change in culture has already been established, even in the program’s infancy.
“People told me that the culture could never go back to the way that it was. They said it couldn’t be done,” she said. “I didn’t believe it. I believe that we can do anything that we set our minds to.”
Having watched her own students create their own infrastructure, working to establish a program that is designed to work for years to come, Teall said she believes the county-wide initiative will have a bright and successful future.
“We didn’t try to improve culture and make a difference, we did improve culture and made a difference that will last a lifetime in our children,” she said.
‘Our school has had so many improvements’
Each climate team presented the work they had accomplished throughout the past school year Thursday evening, doing so with slideshows, video, music and speeches.
Tri County senior Alyssa Gardner, 17, said initiatives implemented by the school’s climate team, such as a “Random Act of Kindness Week,” have made a tremendous difference at the school.
“We have made immense improvements already in one short year,” she said. “We learned how to become better students and present our own assembly.”
Following in Stewart’s footsteps, several of the climate teams such as Tri County’s presented their own student-led assemblies, engaging the student body with exercises and teachings they have learned to change the climate.
“We just wanted to keep the kindness going,” Gardner said. “Our school has seriously had so many improvements.”
Gardner said during her freshman year her school was “not a very safe place to be,” describing an environment where fights were commonplace. But since that time, the atmosphere has changed.
“Kids just keep changing, we haven’t had a single fight this year,” she said. “People have started to look up and are actually being kind and caring about each other.”
Gardner said the key is to keep that mentality going into the future.
“What we’re trying to do is bring everybody together, to respect each other,” she said. “You don’t have to care about everybody and love everybody, but just be kind. As the years go on we’re going to keep this going. This is definitely not the stop, this is the start.”
Stewart’s message wasn’t one that was always easy to believe and adapt to, as Tri County senior Matthew Dever, 18, will attest to.
“It’s not that I didn’t believe in Laurie after our first meeting, I just didn’t believe that some of our students wanted to change,” Dever said. “But I never saw so much positive feedback from anything before. People were so happy. They were happy about everything. People were willing to talk to people they never knew.”
Dever said he not only saw changes in his fellow students, but in himself as well.
“Before this group, I wasn’t anything like that. I wouldn’t talk to you unless I was really close with you,” he said. “ That’s something else that came out, my confidence.”
‘I’ve never seen the climate so great’
In Lakeview, the climate team embraced its own acronym to create a new culture.
Boasting shirts that read “W.I.L.D. H.O.G.S.,” standing for “What I like doing, helping others gain strength,” students such as climate team member and freshman Jeremiah Ropoleski, 14, said the new initiatives, such as hosting two assemblies for both high school and middle school students, will help to maintain a change in culture.
“Our assembly was three hours long and it touched people so much, for the next day that’s all you could feel,” he said. “Our entire school changed because of Laurie’s message. I’ve never seen the climate so great.”
Ropoleski said the climate team has impacted him in ways he never expected after great personal tragedy.
On the night after his sister’s birthday, Ropoleski’s father took his own life, forever changing the family’s world. Ropoleski said he stayed in his bedroom for months, unable to sleep or eat regularly.
“I pretty much shied everyone away,” he said.
But then he received an invitation to join his school’s climate team, and he became a part of something much bigger, changing himself and others for the better.
“Now every day I get out of bed knowing that this is going to be the best it can be,” he said.
‘I like going to school now’
At Central Montcalm High School, junior Nate Jones, 17, said there was a misconception about what the culture of high school was supposed to be like. He is glad to have played a part in changing that.
“Somewhere along the line, it got misconstrued, the idea that it wasn’t cool to like school anymore,” he said. “But I like going to school now. I like seeing everybody, it’s a nice place to be, and everybody is smiling.”
After hosting similar assemblies and student-led initiatives, Jones said it will be up to future generations of students to keep the positive changes throughout the county intact.
“We don’t want this to be one and done, we want to keep on going long after we graduate,” he said. “You need to go out of your way to make others happy, but first, you have to make yourself happy.”
Stewart said had it not been for a collaborative effort between school advisors, superintendents, students and friends throughout the seven school districts and the MAISD, the program would not have witnessed the success that it did in its first year.
“We can’t change all of the problems that are out there, but I do know that our schools can create a place where students can learn without fear of being ridiculed, judged and condemned,” she said. “They can feel welcome and free to be who they were made to be.”
Stewart said positive relationships must continue for the program to remain successful now that she will be removing herself and letting students take charge.
“People have pushed through to do their best, to make their schools welcoming places,” she said. “This has so been a joint effort … in terms of where we go from here, the students have come up with many ideas to create a plan to make this sustainable, to make this last into the future.”
To sum up the theme of creating a new positive image, Central Montcalm junior Colin Kohn, 16, asked everyone to spread a message to be kind for one moment tonight.
“My challenge, and Laurie’s challenge, is for everyone to get on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whatever you want, at 8 p.m. Friday night, and say something nice to someone,” Kohn said. “Whether it’s that they’ve made your day or they have a nice smile. Just tell them something nice.”