Students’ service project earns governor’s award
Anti-bullying effort to be recognized in ceremony June 28
By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
WATERLOO — As their school year draws to a close, eighth grade students from the service-learning class at Blessed Maria Assunta Pallotta Middle School in Waterloo are excited, not only because summer vacation is just around the corner, but also because they’ve learned that during their summer break they will receive the Governor’s Volunteer Award for their service project addressing school bullying.
The middle school class, taught by Carol Luce, service-learning and leadership program coordinator for Cedar Valley Catholic Schools, has been invited to accept the award in person during a special recognition ceremony on June 28 at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center on the University of Northern Iowa campus in Cedar Falls.
Last year when they were in seventh grade, the 18 students in Luce’s class were asked to look at issues in their school and community in order to decide on one subject they wanted to address together for a service-learning project. Eighty percent of the students selected the issue of bullying. Many said that either they or one of their friends had experienced bullying, and they wanted to do something about it.
While conducting research on their chosen topic, the class stumbled across the website of a woman named Jodee Blanco, one of the leading voices in the country on the subject of school bullying and the author of the New York Times bestseller “Please Stop Laughing at Me: One Woman’s Inspirational Story” and the sequel “Please Stop Laughing at Us: One Survivor’s Extraordinary Quest to Prevent School Bullying.”
Students found Blanco’s email address and began an email correspondence. They quickly impressed Blanco. “When they first emailed me, I had to ask whether it was a student or a teacher reaching out because the email was so elegant, heartfelt and sophisticated,” remembered Blanco. “I was astounded not only by their articulate plea to help, but their professionalism and consistent follow up. I know PR executives who could learn much from these kids.”
The middle school students formed an equally positive impression of Blanco and knew they wanted to bring her to speak to their classmates and to all the students, staff and parents of the Cedar Valley Catholic Schools system. They went to work preparing a presentation with a timeline and budget and submitted it to their principal asking if they could bring the nationally known speaker to their school. Their request was approved, and they began making the necessary arrangements for Blanco’s visit.
During the summer of 2015, Luce and her class wrote a grant proposal and received $2,000 to help cover the cost of the speaker’s fees. In the fall, they also coordinated several fundraisers, including a “blue out” in which students who made a donation of $1 or more were allowed to be out of uniform for the day and could instead wear blue, the color of bullying prevention. Similar fundraisers were also held at Columbus High School and Waterloo’s three Catholic elementary schools.
Blanco spoke to the students of Cedar Valley Catholic Schools in the gymnasium at Blessed Maria on the evening of Nov. 10, 2015. The event was open to the public and many members of the local community were present, too. Prior to the presentation, students reached out to the Governor of Iowa’s Office for Bullying Prevention, and the director of that office, Alan Heisterkamp, was also in attendance.
“Ms. Blanco’s presentation was powerful to both students, staff, and to the parents and community leaders who attended,” Luce said.
On Nov. 9, the day before the public presentation, Blanco also met with students in their classrooms and facilitated a workshop for Cedar Valley Catholic Schools’ faculty and staff.
After Blanco’s two-day visit was over, students still had money leftover from their fundraising efforts, so they donated it to their school so signs could be put up that would remind students to think positively and support one another.
The students also initiated something they call a “buddy day.” Once a month, students at the school are randomly paired up and asked to have lunch together, participate in a game or simply talk and get to know one another.
The goal of buddy day is to create supportive relationships between students and for students to become acquainted with others at their school that they might not otherwise know.
After their service-learning project was completed, Luce did a debriefing with her students to talk about how things had gone and what they had learned. “Meeting the speaker was great” one student said. Others noted that “teamwork is important” and they “enjoyed watching their project become a reality.” Students also said they witnessed changes in the behavior of some of their classmates after listening to the anti-bullying speaker, and they found it rewarding to know they could make a difference.
The efforts of the students at Blessed Maria did not go unnoticed by the governor of the state of Iowa. Because of their commitment to addressing bullying, their school was chosen this spring to receive the Governor’s Volunteer Award. Theirs was the only school in the state to be selected to receive the honor based on anti-bullying efforts.
Luce said she is proud of her class and all they have achieved and feels “blessed to have worked with these fine leaders.”
“I see God’s hand in all of this,” she said of her students and their project. “What would Jesus do? Yes, he would reach out to all and welcome all. I truly feel that their actions and their project is one that will stay with this group …” she said, and one that, “brought their faith into action.”
Blanco, who speaks to students in gymnasiums and auditoriums across the country, said her experience of working with the students at Blessed Maria gave her hope because it provided further proof that change is possible and that adolescent cruelty does not need to be a “right of passage” but something that can be overcome.
Though her work can be difficult, sometimes meeting with youth who have been the victims of bullying or even dealing with bullying-related suicide, Blanco said she draws inspiration from Ms. Luce’s service-learning class.
“These remarkable students at Blessed Maria live inside my heart every day, and I carry their courage and draw upon it when I need it most. … I am SO glad the governor is honoring these kids. When he meets them, he will be as blown away as I,” she said.
Contributed photo. Joseph Brunson (with microphone) and Jordan Newton with Jodee Blanco, anti-bullying expert. The boys are eighth-graders at Blessed Maria Assunta Pallotta Middle School in Waterloo and were part of the service project that invited her.