Shorewood - As Shorewood High School neared the end of the day Tuesday emotions ran deep.
It was a scene no one would expect in a high school gym. One by one ninth-grade students stood in front of their peers, microphone in hand, sharing words of pure honesty and shedding tears of relief. Some apologized to their classmates for bullying them. Others pledged to respect themselves and those sitting around them. Many vowed to take a stand against bullying.
Over the course of one day, the students transformed from a group of typical teenagers paired off in cliques into a solid and unified grade.
That was the goal of Youth Frontiers, a nonprofit organization that partners with schools to build positive communities by hosting retreats for grades fourth through 12th. Thanks to a donation from Milwaukee-based Moore Oil to the organization, Shorewood High School was able to host the Respect Retreat for free.
The school targeted the freshmen class because of student's vulnerability when entering the high school community, said Shorewood High School teacher Lisa Bromley before the retreat. Bromley worked with Youth Frontiers to schedule the retreat.
The retreat, led by Youth Frontiers directors Megan Lee-Erickson and Debra Grahn, addressed the issue of bullying. It also focused on the importance of respecting oneself and respecting others.
The daylong retreat consisted of speeches and small group activities. Ninth-grader Maria Stahl said as the day progressed her classmates really began to understand the message of respect.
The first speech was about respecting oneself.
"If you weren't here, it would matter," Grahn explained.
The second focused on respecting others.
"Just quit being a jerk," said Lee-Erickson to a silent crowd. "Nobody in here deserves that."
The students not only heeded the message, but brought it to life in the middle of the high school gym during the last and most powerful activity of the day - the "respect campfire."
Each freshman had to circle one of three goals on a card they get to keep: "respect yourself," "respect others," or "stand up." They also wrote their individual goal in relation to what they circled.
"How can you make a difference so people feel included, wanted and loved?" Lee-Erickson asked the students.
Following individual reflection, they had the option of sharing their goals with their peers.
To the shock of teachers watching over the event, one student asked all those he bullied to stand up. One by one, about a dozen students rose and received an honest apology and a pledge that it would not happen again.
"One thing I hope is that they respect each other, but not only each other but also respect themselves and learn to take better care of themselves and make wise and informed decisions that can benefit their lives," Bromley said.
Her hope was made a reality as students made that exact pledge.
Youth Frontiers has about 25 staff members who travel across the country hosting retreats with various topics.
"I think it would have helped a lot when we were freshmen if we had something like this because it's a good experience to have," said high school junior and peer mentor Ben Steigman, who attended the event with fellow mentors.
Grahn has hosted retreats for 11 years. She said she has seen entire classes change before her eyes, even though the retreat is only for one day.
For her; however, if the retreat stops one child from bullying or helps one child realize that they matter, it is worthwhile. To take it a step further, she hopes all students take a stand.
"Even though we try to help the person who is feeling like they aren't important and we try to help the person who is bullying know that it's not OK, the big thing is we are trying to influence the 80 percent who see it happen, who witness it and see someone getting bullied," Grahn said. "We want to influence them and realize their voice is so important and they can use it and they can make a difference."
For information on Youth Frontiers, visit youthfrontiers.org.
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