PETOSKEY — One of the first things that young students learn — right alongside their 123s and ABCs — is how to be kind to each other.
But, as they get older, sometimes students need to be reminded to look around and see if someone is hurting or needs help.
“I think as kids get older, their self-awareness and things change and they become more inward and less outward, and they have to be reminded to look outward,” said Lance Bailey, a physics teacher at Petoskey High School. “With that, I think if they can look outward, and they walk into a school, then they get that feeling again of ‘Wow, that was good to help somebody else,’ and then that helps them also, hopefully, be kind to themselves.”
From Petoskey High School’s Cheetos Club, to Cheboygan Area Schools’ True Success program to Rudyard Area Schools’ stocking stuffers, students across Northern Michigan are reaching out to each other and pledging to practice kindness.
In Rudyard, located in the Eastern Upper Peninsula, the district’s Youth Advisory Council started a project last year where they raised funds to purchase stockings and special items to stuff the stockings with for every student who had lost a parent or close family member in the last year.
“The holidays are hard for those grieving and our group does a lot of advocacy for mental health,” said Jessica Duncan, Youth Advisory Council advisor of Rudyard Area Schools. “This project was special to them as it was a surprise for the students receiving them. Many were emotional and explored how good it felt to be acknowledged. Our students loved the reward of seeing their peers’ gratitude and being able to pay it forward so much that they have decided to carry on this project year to year.”
Duncan added that the students have also organized a Stigma Free Walk this year to raise awareness for mental health and raise money for the stocking project.
“They have been paying attention to students in our student body who have experienced a recent loss and are gathering info to be sure we do not miss anymore when the time comes to be able to give,” she said.
“The Chippewa Community Foundation found out about our project last year through a meeting I attended and authorized a donation to our project that blew our students away and only gave them more drive and passion to keep going.”
In Cheboygan Area Schools, a new program called True Success has been rolled out district-wide this year.
“The buildings are using it anywhere from two to five times a week,” said Paul Clark, superintendent of Cheboygan Area Schools.
“Each month, the True Success program has a different theme. September was respect, October is responsibility. Some other upcoming themes are compassion, gratitude, integrity, etc.”
The program includes video segments for students to watch and lessons built around each theme.
“Last year only the intermediate school used it and we expanded it to the entire district this year,” Clark said.
“I think that programs like this one are important because our mission as a district is not only to teach students the core curriculum, but to help provide them the skills to function as responsible and informed members of our society.”
At Petoskey High School, the Cheetos Club pledges to “plan to be kind” in honor of a former student who was well known for his small acts of kindness that could brighten a day.
Spencer Tibbits passed away on his 17th birthday in 2014, and his legacy of kindness and generosity directly led to the creation of the Cheetos Club. One story about Spencer’s acts of kindness that struck a chord with many of his classmates was how he would intentionally carry bags of Cheetos in his backpack and give them to students who were having a tough day, saying “Nobody can be sad when they are eating a bag of Cheetos.”
Teacher Lance Bailey, who helps organize and supervise the club, said the group is now in its third year.
“We just sat down in the classroom and said, ‘How can we do what Spencer did?’” Bailey said. “And so we just started little. We kind of found that kindness is contagious, and when people started seeing those things — which we weren’t really attempting to bring light to our actions, it was more just to honor Spencer — other kids started doing things and more kids became involved and this community embraced what we were doing. Because of that community, we can now do pretty amazing things, just because we have a network of kindness and people who care.”
The Cheetos Club started with just a handful of kids, but grew to include nearly 50 last year. Multiple teachers, students and community members have participated in the club’s activities and projects, which have included personalized birthday bags for classmates, providing blankets and notes to struggling students and giving new students tours of the building.
Their most recent project was also their largest to date. They renovated a courtyard at the high school, with the help of the Petoskey Garden Club, Boy Scouts, landscapers and other volunteers.
“The courtyard’s turned from basically desolate embarrassment to just beautiful,” Bailey said.
Bailey added that his favorite kindness initiative has been partnering with the school’s special education program to provide a fun day at Boyne Mountain.
“One of our students found out that 75 percent of students with some type of disability never get invited to one high school event, outside of school, during their whole time in high school,” Bailey said.
So the club invited around 20 special education students to have a meal, go tubing and attend a basketball game.
“We sat together, and that was the first time many of them had ever been to their own high school basketball game,” Bailey said. “That was a good night.”
Through the club’s work, which is detailed at www.cheetosclub.com, Bailey said his students are seeing how they can inspire all types of people, either to help directly or to make donations.
“That is just fun to see this community embrace the kids,” he said. “The other thing I’ve seen at the school is kids that are thinking and looking and seeing things they never have. They have a tendency just to come to school and leave, and now they’re looking for kids who are struggling They’re looking to do a little thing each day. And when you do something to them, then they do something to somebody else. I’m seeing an improvement in culture.”
In the past, the Cheetos Club has worked with younger students to help them establish their own clubs. They have also shared their mission with other schools in Michigan, Iowa and Colorado. A foreign exchange student from Japan was so inspired by the Cheetos Club that they took the idea back to their own school.
“We are so proud to say we have a full blown club in Japan now,” Bailey said. “They’re doing amazing things in Tokyo.”
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the club has not recruited any new students yet this year. But, once it is safe to do so, Bailey said they would love to continue their work with other schools.
“I think we’ve run into something special, plan to be kind, and we would love to share that with others,” he said.