Helping Hands: Promoting peace in Summit County
Summit Daily News
“What can you do to be a peacemaker in your home, your neighborhood, your school and your community?”
This is the question Advocates for Victims of Assault ask children through its Peacemaker Campaign: a five-year old program designed to reinforce empathy, conflict resolution and peaceful communication among youth. The campaign takes place in all Summit County schools in conjunction with the school district.
Since 1979, the Advocates for Victims of Assault have worked to support victims through the promotion of non-violence in Summit County. The nonprofit was founded out of a need for support for victims of domestic abuse, and grew to include victims of sexual assault, accidents, death and other trauma. They provide support for trauma survivors, accountability for offenders, and awareness and education about peaceful behavior through four components of service: 24-hour crisis response, emergency safe housing, legal advocacy, and outreach and education. The organization’s mission is to “create healthy, non-violent individuals, families and community through support, prevention and accountability.”
The campaign was born out of the advocate’s desire to partner with the school district to enhance the bullying prevention and character education the school was already doing.
“Prevention is a big part of what we do,” said Dawn Vranas, peacemaker program coordinator. “If we can get into the schools and give (kids) the tools to make good decisions about not having violent behavior, it’s always a good thing.”
Advocates executive director Amy Jackson said the program aims to “help develop a culture of peace in our schools.”
“The idea behind the peacemaker campaign is really trying to identify, model and reinforce healthy peaceful ways of communication,” she said.
Every year, kids are asked to sign a peace pledge, where they come up with one thing they’ll do to be a peacemaker in their family, school, neighborhood or community. The campaign consists of half-hour visits to classrooms, where different themes are covered through “fun and interactive” presentations. This year’s theme – “What does it mean to walk in somebody else’s shoes?” – focuses on empathy. Advocates ask the children to imagine how someone else feels, and come up with examples. Children might imagine they’re a victim or a bully, and then switch roles to understand the other’s feelings. Advocates talk to children about how people are different, and how they can be accepting of those differences. Fun props – like furry, zebra-striped platform shoes – are used to help emphasize the lesson of walking in someone else’s shoes. Foot-shaped keychains are distributed to remind children of the lesson.
Jackson said kids really enjoy the interactive presentations, and always remember the activity and lesson from the previous year.
“They love it. We’re always try to come up with something fun,” she said.
One third-grader after a recent visit from the advocates: “I learned it is harder than you think it is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I loved the activity and thank you so much for coming.”
“I learned how to be an empathetic person. I really hope you can come again,” another child wrote.
Last year’s theme was “using your words,” where children learned words can be just as harmful as physical violence. Kids were asked to use kind words to help put back together the broken heart of a fictional man, Chris.
“It really is a program that we feel is impacting the kids and making a difference in their world and how they’re thinking about being a peacemaker,” Jackson said.
Advocates are now trying to get whole families – instead of just children – involved in the program.
“A culture of peace starts at home,” Jackson said.
The organization has created a family pledge of non-violence, which is sent home to every student’s family. The pledge asks families to: Be courageous, respect themselves and others, communicate in a healthy way, listen and forgive, respect nature, and avoid entertainment that makes violence look exciting. So far this year, only a few schools have been covered and about 50 families have emailed the pledge back to the advocates.
“The peacemaker program is a well-established program” Jackson said. “Every kid in Summit County should know about the (campaign). Our hope is that every family will know about and want to take the family pledge of nonviolence.”
The program takes place in every elementary school classroom in the county. Currently, Jackson said the program is “in and out” of middle and high schools, but hopes to soon expand participation within those areas. She said presentations involving the older kids focus more on healthy relationships, dating violence and sexual assault.
This year, advocates went into eighth grade girl’s health classes to talk about healthy relationships. They let kids know where to turn – parents, teachers, or the advocates – if they ever feel they are in a bad relationship.
“We hope to continue to expand that program because we feel those topics are critical to continued healthy development of our kids,” Jackson said.
On Nov. 20, 2010, the Summit Foundation recognized the advocates as the Outstanding Nonprofit Organization of the Year. The peacemaker program was highlighted “for its ability to respond to the most current needs of the school district and react with programs designed to target certain behaviors or issues demonstrated by children.”
“All of this occurs in the midst of caring and competent response to trauma in our community,” another nominee said of the peacemaker program. “Despite late night calls to support victims of violent crimes or accidental death, our local advocates show up at school with smiles on their faces and ready to teach our children healthy coping mechanisms.”
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