Sandy Hook Promise program aims to end social isolation



Start with hello.

It’s a simple gesture that some family members of the 26 victims who were killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., hope can help prevent a similar tragedy from happening to someone else.

Sandy Hook Promise, an organization that seeks to “prevent gun-related deaths due to crime, suicide and accidental discharge so that no other parent experiences the senseless, horrific loss of their child,” brought that message to Poland students (and thousands of other students across the country) this week with its “Start With Hello” initiative.

Throughout the week, students districtwide engaged in activities aimed at ending social isolation and fostering inclusion. Students heard guest speakers, had Skype sessions with students from other school districts, and talked with teachers and guidance counselors about topics such as bullying.

Each day had a theme. On Monday, students were asked to wear name tags so they could greet each other by name; Tuesday, they wore green and passed around smiley faces; and on Wednesday, students were encouraged to mix up their usual lunch tables.

Andre Elliott of Youngstown spoke to students on behalf of Sandy Hook Promise. He shared with them ways to address social isolation: See someone who is isolated; reach out to them and connect; and, of course, say hello.

He gave them tips on how to reach out to a peer, such as simply sitting next to them, interacting with them on social media in a positive way or leaving them a handwritten note.

Mary Ann Dieter of Canfield brought another lesson to middle-school students Wednesday. She taught students how to make “love rocks,” which signify “love, joy and happiness” in memory of her granddaughters, Anna and Abigail, who were killed in a hit-and-run accident in their Oregon hometown in 2013. Poland schools tied in her message with that of “Start With Hello.”

Dieter’s daughter, Susan Dieter-Robinson, started making the decorated rocks six months after the girls’ death.

“Rather than tragedy, she wanted their life to be of happiness and joy. And whoever gets a love rock always smiles,” Dieter said.

Eighth-graders Adeline Schweers and Emily Frost said they thought the programs were a good idea. They said they found the idea of sitting with a different lunch table a little scary, but Adeline said the program taught her about “expanding your friend zone and learning more about other people.”

That’s the effect Poland school counselors hoped the program would have.

“Social isolation is such an epidemic,” said school counselor Mary Jo Lukach, adding that social media amplifies the issue. “Sometimes kids can be in a group of friends and feel alone.

“It’s so easy to feel isolated if you have any kind of social media. It’s important for them to feel like they belong, like they’re welcome.”

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