GRAVESEND — At Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy, Gravesend, small gestures are a big deal.
The school, which opened its 2019-20 academic year on Sept. 4, is encouraging its students to say “hello” to their classmates and to be especially welcoming to new kids at the school. It’s part of the national “Start With Hello” initiative to show students that kindness truly matters.
Charles Nzereogu, a sixth-grader who’s new at Our Lady of Grace, has already experienced kindness at the academy.
“It’s pretty great because there’s a lot of friendly people and they’re nice, and the teachers are awesome,” Charles said on the second day of school.
“Start With Hello” is a youth violence prevention program that was started by Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit based in Newtown, Conn. The organization is led by several family members whose loved ones were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012. The program teaches students how to create a culture of inclusion and connectedness at their school.
Angela Donnelly, a first-grader teacher at Our Lady of Grace, received an email about “Start With Hello” over the summer and immediately forwarded the information to Kelly Wolf, the school’s principal.
“I thought it was a great idea, especially with everything that’s happening in the world,” Donnelly said. “Everything you see on the news with bullying, Columbine, the shooters, and it’s still happening today.”
Our Lady of Grace has 20 new students this year, and so Wolf thought that this was an opportune time for “Start With Hello.”
Once the school registered for the program, returning students began to make posters with encouraging messages for their new classmates and to write poems for their new friends.
Wolf believes that such simple gestures go a long way toward making everyone feel welcome. Plus, the program melds well with what she says Catholic education is all about anyway.
“Catholic education is always about kindness matters,” Wolf said. “But it’s really taking the time out to say to a kid, ‘You know what? Say hello. Say hello to the face you don’t know next to you. Say hello to the teacher.’
“I would hope that it opens their hearts even bigger for Jesus. Our mission here at Our Lady of Grace Academy is helping students grow in faith and in wisdom.”
Eighth-grader Kendra Mitacek, who has been going to Our Lady of Grace since nursery school, has never been a new student, but imagines it would be overwhelming. She’s on board with the “Start With Hello” program.
“We’re doing a lot of new stuff, so I think it’s going to bring us closer together as a school. It’s just really nice,” she said. “It warms my heart because there are so many new students and it would make them feel welcome, and it’s easier to make friends that way.”
Every morning during morning prayer and announcements, Wolf makes a point to have students say hello to their classmates sitting on either side of them. She now hopes everyone will feel comfortable saying hello and thanking police officers, too. Students need to start learning lessons about kindness and inclusion as soon as possible, she said.
“I truly believe, if you start now, what a better world this would be,” Wolf said. “If we would take the time for children and show them the right way to do things as Jesus would want us to do.”