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Dec 5, 2017 10:08 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press

East Hampton High School Compassion Without Borders Chapter Hopes To Help Students Connect

Marissa Harry, Ashley Peters, Shemonique Jello, Madelyne Gaibor, Lucia Ibrahi and Jim Stewart, from left, are in East Hampton High School's chapter of Compassion Without Borders. JON WINKLER
Dec 5, 2017 3:32 PM

The five students in an East Hampton High School classroom range from freshmen to seniors, and while some have known each other for a while, others only recently became friends. Either way, they’re all chatting about the way kids interact in the hallways.Then a visitor asks a question: How do you get a teenager to break out of his or her comfort zone?

At first, there’s silence, as the students look at one another.

“I don’t think there’s really an answer,” Lucia Ibrahim, a freshman, was first to respond.

Lucia and 10 her fellow members of the school’s new chapter of Compassion Without Borders, which was formed in November, are working to emotionally support other students at East Hampton High School.

The chapter got its start after an annual student conference sponsored by the Suffolk County High School Principals Association that was held in high schools throughout the county. After taking 10 students to the conference at Islip High School in November and participating in 15 previous conferences himself, health teacher Jim Stewart was encouraged by Principal Adam Fine to help the East Hampton students maintain the connection they’d made.

“There are ways for students to realize their strength and potential, so I hope the kids take the information they got from the conference out to their friends and family,” Mr. Stewart said on Friday. “This is to do what we can do within our community—the kids will carry it forward.”

The members of the high school chapter have already found ways to help others going through emotional trauma.

Marissa Harry, a junior, said her cousin committed suicide a month before Marissa started her freshman year. After that tragedy, Marissa started participating in walks to raise money for suicide prevention awareness, and she made a PowerPoint project about suicide prevention for her health class.

Lucia recently participated in an eight-week leadership training program at The Retreat, the East Hampton shelter for victims of domestic abuse.

The students see a need for a club that can help students connect with each other, or merely open up about personal trouble. When asked if there was a recent incident that Compassion Without Borders could have helped, the group brought up Matthew Lester, an East Hampton High School student who committed suicide in January at the age of 17.

The students in the chapter discussed how its hard to know when a teenager is in emotional pain, whether because of not knowing certain kids or because of defenses that kids will put up to protect themselves.

“We kids, sometime we put on a mask to hide what’s behind, because sometimes we’re hurting, but we put a smile on our faces because we don’t want anyone to know,” said Shemonique Jello, a senior. “You can make people feel comfortable, but don’t pressure them. Let them want to tell you, let them confide in you.”

“Just talk to people,” Ashley Peters, a sophomore, chimed in. “Just go up and say, ‘Hi.’ Even if it’s just a complete stranger. It’ll make their day.”

While the chapter is still in its early form, the group has already bounced around ideas for how to bring students together and encourage them to be more open. Members have discussed the idea of hosting the next countywide Compassion Without Borders conference at East Hampton High, or even having the high school host its own independent conference.

As its mission statement says, the chapter members hope to use their collective voice to “break the silence” of emotionally struggling students and take action to create a better emotional environment. Another example of this barrier-breaking action came from chapter member Gianna Gregorio, a senior who identifies as pansexual and whose activism started in her freshman year, when her health project on the intricacies of gender so impressed Mr. Stewart that he had her present her project to other health classes.

“The most compelling thing about Compassion Without Borders is the connection on both a leadership and personal level,” Gianna said. “This brings people together as leaders, and leadership can be simply speaking up for what you believe in.”

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