What Does It Take To Win A National Kindness Challenge? These Three Students Have The Answer.

"To hear about other people's stories is really important, and it means a lot to be heard... Just to know that somebody's there for them..."

At Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida,  in one 13-person class, 11 students have seen someone get shot, 11 have an absent parent, 12 have an incarcerated family member,  and 13 have been detained and questioned by the police. However, they didn't think they had much in common — or that they could channel those experiences into a common good — until the #YourStoryIsMine project.

Three students, Billy Luper, Chris Burgess, and Nick Burgess originally came up for the interactive school project with their teacher, Ms. Amy Donofrio, for their EVAC class. As soon as they put up a bulletin board explaining the project's intention and sharing its first personal story, students immediatlely surrounded the board and began to put the provided "relate" and "support" stickers on it. 



Ashley Herendeen, The KIND Foundation
Ashley Herendeen, The KIND Foundation

"Once we began to share our stories, we became very close and united just in that class alone," Billy told A Plus. "So we really wanted the opportunity to share the stories with the whole school." Besides connecting to each other with the "support" and "relate" stickers, every student could also post positive comments, potentially even their own story.

But the ambitious group didn't stop there. With "support" and "relate" stickers resembling the Facebook "like' and "love" reactions, it only made sense they then took their project to social media, where other members of the Jacksonville community as well as students and teachers all over the world could be inspired and get involved. "I even had some teachers from other schools reach out to me and ask if their classes could participate as an extension assignment because their students knew about it and were really connected," Donofrio told A Plus. 

Ashley Herendeen, The KIND Foundation
Ashley Herendeen, The KIND Foundation

Each month, the students and teacher chose a topic for the board they knew was a core issue among members of the student body, such as homelessness, losing a sibling, having an incarcerated parent. The latter was a topic Nick and Chris could relate to, but as Chris told A Plus, "We didn't know it was that many people, and that many students throughout the student body that could relate to us on that topic." That is, until the #YourStoryIsMine project showed them they weren't alone. Two other students, who shared their stories of homelessness and losing a sibling respectively, had a similarly affirmative experience. "I think even they were a little surprised by how much support they got and how much people related," Donofrio said. "It was really overwhelming."

Ashley Herendeen, The KIND Foundation
Ashley Herendeen, The KIND Foundation

What many would simply write off as "problems," Chris and his fellow project leaders saw "as a tool to bring unity to a student body or a community" that needed it. "Our school just had its graduation on Friday, and 14 people got shot in one weekend," Donofrio said. "About half of them were teenagers, almost all of them were under thirty." 

Those statistics, however, are beginning to change with her EVAC class. Besides the #YourStoryIsMine project, the students have started making a difference in their school and local community by inviting local police officers into the classroom to discuss police brutality, spoke at a U.S. Senate hearing on juvenile justice, participated in a White House briefing, and created partnerships with the mayor, the state attorney's office, and the sheriff. Not to mention, they just happened to meet former President Barack Obama along the way. "What they've done is literally amazing," Donofrio explained. "None of us are trained in advocacy work, but they're just genuinely a group of youth who see the opportunity to really make a difference and are taking it and are putting so much hard work behind it." 

Ashley Herendeen, The KIND Foundation
Ashley Herendeen, The KIND Foundation

Their latest project, #YourStoryIsMine, is certainly no exception. Because it was such a success, on a whim, the group entered it into a national Kindness Challenge hosted by Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education,  and The KIND Foundation, a nonprofit started by KIND Snacks. The competition challenged school to ""create and implement a project that addresses a barrier to kindness and inclusivity in your school community," according to a press statement. 

Though dozens of schools across the country entered, were awarded the grand prize on their last day of school, June 1. "It was crazy, because I wasn't expecting it at all. Like at all," Billy said. "It was very mind-blowing and surprising," Chris also told A Plus. When they found out they'd won, the students started smiling, jumping up and down, and high-fiving each other. "This was the best possible way to end the school year," Donofrio added. "...As a school, winning, there's something to rally around with pride." 



Ashley Herendeen, The KIND Foundation
Ashley Herendeen, The KIND Foundation

Pride, and the sense of unity that comes along with it, is never more important than in a community like Jacksonville's where violence is prevalent. "A lot of our youth are hurting. They've been through a lot, and they don't have a lot of support, and they don't have an outlet," Donofrio said. 

Thanks to the #YourStoryIsMine project, these students now have an outlet and, fueled by the passion and determination of Billy, Chris, and Nick — as well as an unexpected donation from the KIND Foundation —  will continue  into the future. "I hope to continue this project and reach other youth and not only in Jacksonville but maybe nationally one day," Chris said.  

Their commitment to the cause endures because the importance of their work does. "To hear about other people's stories is really important, and it means a lot to be heard —  especially with youth," Billy said. "Just to know that somebody's there for them, and somebody cares."

Billy, Chris, Nick, and Ms. Donofrio have sent that message to the student body at Robert E. Lee High School and want to send any even greater one to young people across the country. They hope students can view them as an example and learn that they, too, can channel what they've been through not only to "bond with other people who are going through similar things" but also "to make a change in their own community." 

"You can be there for each other," Donofrio said."And you don't have to be an adult to do it." As her students prove, all you have to be is kind. 

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