Newcomerstown, Ohio is a small rural community just north of Appalachia.
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.
My first impression was from high school principal Josh Branch, who texted me about parking in the pharmacy lot across the street and come in through the front doors, which I did.
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.
My first assembly was for middle schoolers. I spent two hours in the auditorium with sixth, seventh and eighth graders.
Did I ever mention that I should request a shower after my talks? I sweat a little too much.
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.
Then it happened.
I was summoned to the office and told about a self-inflicted gunshot incident that morning at Jackson Middle School, about 40 miles away. A seventh-grade boy brought a rifle to school and shot himself in a restroom there. [UPDATE: He died the next day. No additional details have been released, and an investigation is underway.]
After processing this, we had to get back to work at Newcomerstown.
But it didn’t take long before a couple kids came running in and told us about an incident in the auditorium concerning a female student.
Now we have the young girl in the office, and a couple of her friends are in other offices. 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.
This incident took a couple hours of our attention – talking to kids, parents coming in and figuring out who knew what.
The whirlwind day continued with another two-hour assembly – this time for the high school students.
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.
I met with the teachers after school for 45 minutes.
At six o’clock, I gave a presentation for parents. More than a dozen mental health and other agencies had tables set up as well. 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.
It was after nine when I was finally saying my goodbyes – and we all just sat in the auditorium, thanking each other.
I love my job.
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