Students at several Pickerington Schools buildings recently experienced activities to promote inclusion and kindness among classmates during Start With Hello Week.

The program, held Jan. 27-31, is part of a movement initiated by the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation. The foundation was created after a 2012 mass shooting in which 20 children and six adults were killed at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

During the week, students in several Pickerington buildings participated in program activities designed to promote inclusion and kindness by using simple gestures and empathy to show others people care about them. Activities ranged from students at Violet Elementary, Toll Gate Middle School and Pickerington High School Central wearing green Jan. 31 to sending letters and posters of kindness to peers at different school buildings.

"Coming out of Sandy Hook, what they wanted to do was make sure that no one is in isolation," said Kelli Saksa, a school counselor at Toll Gate Middle School. "Our focus is not on anti-gun violence. The kids know that there's violence in the world.

"The message is, 'If you see kids that are by themselves, invite them to come in with you.' Yes, it's kindness, but it's inclusion."

Students at Toll Gate were challenged to complete a total of 100 acts of kindness during Start With Hello Week.

They also played group games and participated in activities that encouraged them to learn more about each other and invite others to interact with them.

They celebrated Jan. 31 with karaoke during lunch.

Toll Gate fifth-grader Cooper Baase described Start With Hello Week as "a huge-scale project on meeting new people and stopping bullying from happening so that later in life you just have a better overall life and make more friends."

"It's also about us stopping some bad things that have been going on and meeting new people and having fun," he said, noting if people can stop someone from being bullied, it can prevent things "like depression and other sad things like that."

Fifth-grader Hunter Moore said most of the things he did during the week to increase inclusion and kindness were small gestures.

"One of them, obviously, is to go say hello to someone new," Moore said. "Another was to go get an extra packet of ranch (dressing) for your friend."

Toll Gate fifth-grader Madison Menke was part of a group of students who helped lead games for large groups of students and make sure everyone was participating and included.

She said students took time to spread goodwill to others through notes.

"We've had cutout cards with emojis, and you write a kind note and pass it on to people and tell them to pass it on to others," Menke said. "We had to do 100 random acts of kindness, and once you did one, you hung them up on the board."

Saksa said Start With Hello Week has grown over the past few years, and she notices differences in behaviors during the week, as well as throughout the remainder of the year.

She said Toll Gate administrators plan to continue the tradition next year.

"The kids have done a fantastic job leading everyone," Saksa said. "Differences I've noticed are kids that maybe would not have played with certain kids have crossed over and introduced themselves to other kids. We've had conversation starters on the cafeteria tables where they have found likenesses with each other, things they didn't know they have in common."

nellis@thisweeknews.com

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