Eastern Ohio has been devastated in recent months by a series of teen suicides and somewhat mystified by bomb threats at schools and threats of gun violence between teenagers.
That provided the backdrop for a Jeff Yalden, a youth motivational speaker brought in for a day in the Newcomerstown Exempted Village School District. Yalden spoke in the morning to Middle School students, in the afternoon at the High School, after school to teachers and then in the evening he spoke for an adults only group.
Yalden wrote about the day on his blog, calling it "A Whirlwind Day in Rural Ohio."
"Newcomerstown, Ohio is a small rural community just north of Appalachia," Yalden wrote.
"I was invited to spend the day with Newcomerstown Exempted Village Schools and heard that nearly 80 percent of the students there were receiving free or reduced lunches. I hear that stuff all the time but have never let that influence how I look at the kids or the community.
"I arrived on February 20 at 6:50 in the morning for a seven o’clock meeting with the administrative team and was astonished to learn that all these people were born and raised in this area. They had grown up, graduated, gone out into the world and came back. It was that kind of community. I love that.
"We had a great hour-long meeting, and I listened – learning about who they were, their needs, and how they value their kids. It was an awesome way to start my day.
"Three steps into the building, I noticed the lockers – many of which were decorated with inspirational quotes and messages of kindness from students to their peers. The walls were also filled with uplifting posters and decorations.
"Shortly thereafter, I met the young ladies who were responsible for such awesomeness. I assumed that they had put everything up the night before and asked them how long it took them to do this.
"It turns out that these young ladies decorated their peers’ lockers in October, and the kids hadn’t removed anything – everything still looked new. I was amazed. At this point, I knew that this day was going to be awesome.
"These kids were amazing. We didn’t waste any time with an introduction. I just said, ‘BOOM – Lives are going to change,’ and sure enough, a bunch of students lined up afterward to shake my hand. Some told me that I changed their lives. A few of them wanted to talk about their lives, and they did.
"I heard about a group of girls that called their group ‘different.’ I found out that they were very smart and mature for their age, and all had lovely hearts. However, they secretly talked to each other about their thoughts and feelings. This was a circle of trust in which they talked candidly about suicide and self-harm. Imagine being in the sixth grade and hearing this stuff about each other."
While in Newcomerstown, Yalden also learned about a Jackson Middle School (Perry Township) student who had brought a rifle to school and later shot himself in the school’s restroom. The student later died of his wounds and law enforcement officials believe the student had originally brought the rifle to school to shoot other students.
Yalden wrote that Newcomerstown school personnel responded very well – "calmly and on top of things."
"This is the team that I would want looking out for my kids. This isn’t my first rodeo, but it was incredible to see well they worked and how open their hearts were. I was very impressed.
"If I were to travel with a camera crew you’d see and hear stories that would break your heart. I love what I do. It’s amazing giving these kids hope and support, but gosh, it can be tough hearing their pain and home lives.
In the blog, Yalden noted that more than a dozen mental health and other agencies had tables set up as well, saying, "It was impressive to see the support for a school community that wanted to be proactive about the issues their students face every day.
"We had 125 people come out for the event, and I think that was a great turnout. We spent an incredible two hours talking about parenting, teen mental health, social media and the signs and symptoms related to teen suicide."
For more information about Yalden, go to his website, www.jeffyalden.com.