Because Kindness counts: La Jolla High School teens launch club with compassion

By Ashley Mackin

A group of students at La Jolla High School are hoping for a more peaceful and kind new year. Through their club, Kindness Counts, they say they wish to set off a chain reaction of kindness and change the social climate at the school over time.

Now 20 members strong, Kindness Counts was founded by Madeleine Garay and Talia Chalhoub to foster a culture where bullying is not accepted.

The group placed positive messages throughout the school and are working with their younger counterparts at Muirlands Middle School to arrange for inspirational speakers and plan ways to improve “bully reporting.”

“We want to change the climate of our school to one where bullying is not accepted, so we thought we could start making a change,” said 15-year-old co-founder Garay. In honor of World Peace Day, Sept. 21, the club painted across the school’s senior benches (where seniors can paint messages for their friends’ birthdays or other celebrations) the query, “Who Will You Make Peace With?” They also hung inspirational banners and posters with messages like “You can change someone’s life. Stand up to bullying” around campus.

Vice-principal Will Hawthorne said these posters would help with a cultural shift down the line.

“It takes time for these things to change, but it’s exciting to see how it is going to take hold,” he said. “Every action the club is taking is all leading to cultural change.”

The club members want to start what Garay calls, “a chain reaction of kindness,” encouraging their fellow students to be nice to one another. “If you do something nice to someone, they might feel the need to be nice to others, too,” she said. “It can be tough to be nice to bullies or those who are not nice to you, but it could help them in the long run.”

She added that the opposite effect, a chain reaction of meanness, is what leads some bullies to lash out.

“The reason they might be bullying other people is because someone isn’t nice to them, so they feel the need to be mean to others, too,” she said. “By being nice to people, it can affect them in a positive way.”

Personally, she said, she will work at reaching out to people in the New Year. “I’m going to try to be nice and talk to people I don’t usually talk to, and put myself out there.”

Hope for the future

The group is also working with middle school students at Muirlands so they will have a better under- standing of bullying and avoid the behavior (in younger years) before it starts. Some children, Garay said, don’t even know they are bullying each other at that age.

“Cyber-bullying is a really good example,” she said. “Some people might think they are being funny or sarcastic — or they think no one will catch them online — but that can really hurt other people. (The recipients) don’t know if it’s a joke. Cyber-bullies also can’t see people’s reactions, so they tend to be less empathetic.”

Garay said she hopes to instill the attitude that bullying is not acceptable by the time these students enter high school.

But for the students already at La Jolla High, Kindness Counts is planning speakers for both students and parents. Garay said she is trying to get speakers from Rachel’s Challenge to come to the school early in the New Year.

Rachel’s Challenge is in honor of Rachel Joy Scott, the first student killed during the Columbine School shooting of 1999. In her memory, Scott’s father and brother tour schools to talk about spreading kindness. “They talk about how being a good person can help others and even change lives,” Garay said.

They also hope to set up an anonymous reporting system for bullying.

“Some people feel a bit embarrassed by (being bullied) or they don’t want to get in trouble with the bully, so we’re thinking of leaving a box in the front office where people can drop off tips that we could check,” she said.

Vice-principal Hawthorne said the anonymous reporting has not yet been approved, but is still up for discussion. He added that it’s “refreshing” to see social change generated by young people. “High school is hard enough, especially if you are not being treated properly, and any time any kid is not being treated properly, there’s a need for something like this.”