This is the fourth in a series of articles, written by Christina Brown, that show how community members are using the Pathway to Student Success. The Pathway was created and endorsed by local youth and adults as a guide to engage everyone in building strong community by supporting youth on their journey to becoming the next generation of skilled workers, engaged citizens and civic leaders.

By Christina Brown for IAISS

When Crystal Sunell asked her 10th Grade English Class at Grand Rapids High School to write about what it means to feel accepted, one common theme appeared.

They all wanted to feel accepted, but they didn’t always know how to find acceptance.

“The feeling of being accepted is such a powerful thing, especially in high school when you’re constantly trying to fit in,” wrote student Emma Reibel. “You shouldn’t be afraid of going to school every day, but the sad reality is that some students are. Feeling like you don’t fit in can be one of the worst feelings in the world.”

The Itasca Area Initiative for Student Success (IAISS) included the goal, “Every student will feel accepted” in its Pathway to Student Success because they recognized the role acceptance plays in student success.

Sunell’s work as a teacher and as advisor of the Gay-Straight Alliance is just one way the community is making progress toward that goal.

Sunell said the Gay-Straight Alliance works on issues like bullying and tolerance while providing a safe place for kids to socialize. The group is open to all students, and can help them find their place.

“We believe that people should be accepted for who they are and treat each other nicely,” said Sunell.  “We’re not perfect human beings, but we can allow ourselves room to grow, change and learn.”

Ground Floor Youth Drop-in Center

Feeling accepted by peers and their community is an important aspect of teens’ life and development. The Ground Floor youth drop-in center and other programs provide Itasca area teens support, encouragement and caring environments that build their sense of acceptance.

Duane Geisler, executive director at Itasca Youth for Christ, and a member of the IAISS core team said kids need to feel they are valued and accepted in order to succeed.

“Acceptance is so important to way a person looks at life,” said Geisler, “It affects how a person faces struggles or how to face the goals they want to accomplish.  Kids are educated in academics, but an important piece of their education is knowing how to live as a person in relationship to others.”

Itasca Youth for Christ tries to help students find their place by offering non-denominational, faith-based support to youth in the Itasca County region through Campus Life activities, juvenile justice ministry, The Ground Floor Youth Center in Grand Rapids, and other programming.

Geisler said the goal is to provide kids a fun, safe environment where they can be themselves.

“Inclusion is a very important part of what we do so that kids feel accepted and valuable,” said Geisler.  “It’s all about building relationships and spending time with them.”

Kim Geislinger, program director at Ross Resources, has learned through her work with students that regular school attendance plays a big role in feeling accepted.

“Kids who are constantly late or missing a lot of class time fall behind very easily,” said Geislinger. “They start to have anxiety because of it, and when they don’t feel good about school, it affects self-esteem. If we can support kids to get to school early on, a lot of the problems at the high school level fall off.”

Ross Resources works to address truancy and absenteeism in 13 schools in Itasca County.  Geislinger said their mission is not to police, but to assist families who may be struggling by connecting them to community resources.

“It’s not just about showing up for school,” said Geislinger. “It’s about showing up for life.”

While much is already being done in the Itasca area to support students feeling accepted, there is still more work to be done.

“It’s a huge task,” said Geisler, “It starts with awareness of youth issues. I’ve heard from a lot of kids who just want people in the community to really listen and understand what they’re dealing with as high school students. They want people to encourage them, to seek them out and compliment them.”

Sunell agreed.

“Kids need to see the good in themselves,” Sunell said.  “We can’t just tell them ‘You’re wonderful’ just for breathing. You have to help them see the good things they’ve done.  When you see them do something nice, say something to them. It helps build confidence.  And when you have confidence it is easier for others to accept you.”

The essays from Sunell’s students show that the goal of the Pathway is on the right track.

“I believe that being accepted should never be about your appearance, but about who you are as a person,” wrote student Briana Jeffers. “Everyone should be able to feel accepted anywhere.”