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The covert mission was a pleasant surprise for Wilson Middle School students leaving for the day.

Builders Club members used the distraction of final period classes to draw pictures and notes of encouragement in chalk on the sidewalks leading out from the building.

Daymion Scott was in on the conspiracy to give classmates an unexpected morale boost. “I saw people turn from a regular normal face to happy,” the eighth-grader said. There were smiles as they walked away.

That same kind of joy came over Kyera Brown as she watched sixth-graders find Positivity Pencils hidden around the school. Each pencil had a slip of paper with an uplifting message.

“It was something simple but it made their day better,” said Kyera, an eighth-grader living in Carlisle. “They had never seen anything like it.”

For six months now, Builders Club members have been involved in student-led activities to change the culture and climate of Wilson Middle School in Carlisle.

“We’re trying to build a more positive attitude ... make it a more welcoming environment for kids,” said Riley Spencer, an eighth-grader from Middlesex Township. He said the idea is to counteract the negativity some students have in trying to cope with the pressures and demands of school.

“Everybody needs something to help boost them up once in a while,” Riley said. “If there is nothing to make them feel better about themselves or the environment, they are just going to think everything is against them and nobody is there for them.”

Focus on school

The Builders Club is a middle school program of Kiwanis International. The club is overseen at Wilson by co-advisers Laura Keim, a health teacher, and Melissa Klingel, a family and consumer science teacher.

Since taking over leadership at the start of this school year, the teachers have shifted the emphasis away from community-based service work to a focus on school-based activities. Past club members have worked the school garden to harvest produce to benefit the Project SHARE food pantry.

Aside from Chalk the Walk and Positivity Pencils, club members joined forces with student council to volunteer time during their Thanksgiving break to prepare and distribute snacks to teachers working a particularly long shift of parental conferences. At Christmas time, they baked dozens of snickerdoodles to distribute to needy families.

Rock Our School is an ongoing Friday morning activity. Students nominate teachers who rock in terms of doing something positive for the school. “If we pick (a student’s) slip, we play a song they had chosen,” Keim said. “Teachers’ spirits are lifted because we are getting little messages from the kids about the great things they see us doing.”

In November, they turned the tables and teachers had the opportunity to nominate students by submitting their name as a feather on a paper turkey posted on a big bulletin board. It’s not unusual on every Friday morning to see students dancing in the halls to songs heard over the PA system as they gear up for the final day of school before a weekend.

“We have seen leadership qualities in all the kids we have encouraged to join,” Klingel said of Builders Club members. “As an adviser, I’ve tried to build those traits within them. I’ve seen a lot of growth in the way they carry themselves and come up with ideas on how to serve the school. We have been able to step back and let them take charge.”

Keim has also seen the results. “I don’t think kids this age understand what they are capable of doing until they are pushed by an adviser or a teacher,” she said. “We try to guide them and show them they can do amazing things, that you don’t have to be an adult to make change.”

Leadership at work

Their club is one of many in local school districts where students take the lead in changing the climate and culture within a building. This move toward greater youth empowerment echoes a broader social trend that last year saw mass demonstrations in favor of gun control after shootings at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

“It’s a really good thing that students are stepping up, taking charge and trying to make a difference,” Riley said. “I think we’re disappointed at what adults have failed to do.”

“If the grownups are not going to do anything, we should,” Kyera said. “If we start early then we can stop bigger things from happening. We want to make sure people know they are welcome here at Wilson. We’re one big family.”

In fall 2016, students at Boiling Springs High School launched an effort to accentuate the positive within their building.

They would post sticky notes and original artwork on walls, lockers and restroom mirrors with the goal of boosting individual morale and overall school spirit.

In the nurse’s office, club members put up an oversized poster of the type of illustration that can be seen in the pages of adult coloring books. The goal was to reduce the stress of students reporting to the nurse for an injury or sickness.

On the wall nearby students put up quotes on how to cope with anxiety. Known at first as the MILE Club for Motivate, Inspire, Love and Encourage, the group now goes by the name of Operation SMILE.

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Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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