By Linda McFarland • Guest Columnist
Imagine you are an eighth-grade student intent on learning all you can about social justice issues, and you have the opportunity to meet and study with a Nobel Peace Laureate. This dream came true for a group of PeaceJam student leaders from Waynesville Middle School when they traveled to a regional meeting in Tallahassee, Fla. They spent time with Betty Williams who received her award for leading peace marches in Northern Ireland and is now involved in environmental issues.
PeaceJam is an international educational program built around making just such experiences possible, so that these outstanding adults have the opportunity to pass on the spirit, skills, and wisdom they embody. This effort began in Denver, Colo., in 1996, with its mission to create a generation of young leaders committed to positive change in themselves, their communities and the world through the inspiration of twelve Nobel Peace Laureates.
Dr. Vicki Faircloth, professor of elementary and middle school education at Western Carolina University, brought the concept to Haywood County after reading about it while vacationing in Colorado. “I first saw an article in a newspaper in Aspen. Then as I traveled around, I kept seeing PeaceJam news in each city I visited. I was so impressed with the possibilities the program offered that I wanted to bring it to western North Carolina.” Faircloth talked to several principals, stressing that she wanted to recruit teachers who were eager to be involved, and passionate about social justice issues in their communities. She found just such a team in Ron Hundley and Frank Pollifrone at Waynesville Middle School.
Their group of 48 eighth-graders began working on Wednesday afternoons, developing service learning projects which address local needs and directly benefit people in the Waynesville area. They were assisted by student mentors from Western Carolina University under the tutelage of Faircloth and her colleague, Dr. Rus Binkley. The projects include teaching tolerance to a kindergarten class and a sixth-grade class; reviving a recycling program at WMS, and implementing one at Central Elementary; teaching water conservation to fifth-graders; raising money for lifestraws (a personal water purification system to send to Africa); assembling hygiene kits for use at the Open Door; and acquiring necessary items for folks at REACH and KARE.
The students took charge as they determined the populations they wanted to help and the needs they wanted to meet. Their teachers offered support and encouragement and gave the students plenty of latitude as they worked out the details of their ambitious undertakings. They learned by experience that they could have an impact and positive influence on their community. They found they could set a goal and figure out together how to realize them.
These PeaceJammers and their advisors have taken their story into our community. At a recent meeting of the Haywood Peace Fellowship, Morgan Trantham, Kayleigh McAlister, and Lindsay Kihnel described the basics of PeaceJam, and then fielded questions with eloquence and poise. The student leaders have addressed other civic groups as well as the county commissioners. Their teachers are quick to praise the commitment, maturity and energy of these students.
And Faircloth and Binkley laud the unstinting efforts of Pollifrone and Hundley in taking on this project and working tirelessly to see it to fruition. The immediate reward was the team’s work with Betty Williams at the regional meeting in Tallahassee March 21-22. The long-term benefits will be lifelong.
The team of middle-school PeaceJam Leaders and the PeaceJam Ambassadors (high school students) at Randolph Learning Center in Asheville are the only programs in North Carolina. Both groups are flourishing through an amazing number of connections and efforts, and they had their inception through the initiative and vision of Vicki Faircloth.
(Anyone interested in offsetting the expenses of the trip these students just returned from can contact Mr. Pollifrone or Mr. Hundley at Waynesville Middle School at 828.456.2403.)