iLEAD Lancaster Middle Schoolers Make a Difference with Compassion Project

Middle schoolers often get a bad rap, but the learners at iLEAD Lancaster Charter School are here to show us how great middle schoolers can be. 

Now in its second year, The Compassion Project at the school challenges learners to leave their mark on the world. Facilitators Shannon Byrd and Wendy Graffam encourage middle schoolers to create a series of public products that demonstrate what they feel compassionate about and then take action to demonstrate empathy. 

Throughout the project, the middle schoolers learn about empathy and self-compassion and share acts of kindness.

When the learners have chosen an area of compassion, they work to produce a Personal Art Piece (poem, painting, sculpture, sketch, photo, animation), a Personal Self-Compassion Piece (visual art piece — affirmations, quotes, songs, stretching — that includes at least five components of self-compassion), a Making a Difference Vlog (planning and executing a random act of kindness and documenting any ripple effect) and a Making a Difference Reflective Essay.

iLEAD Lancaster 6th grader Emmalee Yarovinskly hosted a toy drive.

The Compassion Project was created by Emilie Evenson, now a leadership resident and program director at iLEAD Online, who wanted to remind all learners how to be human first.

“We have found this compassion challenge for middle schoolers is beneficial because it takes them out of their comfort zone,” Evenson said. “Developmentally, they are often focused on themselves. But challenging them to think about others is transformative.”

Many experts believe that empathy is a vital skill in high demand but is also challenging for many. Evenson said that empathy is great, but the project is about taking it a step further by putting one’s empathy into action: compassion. 

“I have found it important for learners to understand this difference,” Evenson said.  

Byrd said this experience asks learners to look within themselves to see how they can serve others. She and Graffam are amazed by the diverse ways the learners choose to serve the community. Examples include collecting blankets for animal shelters, creating cards for Bobcat Fire victims, volunteering to distribute hot meals, helping family members in need and volunteering to care for animals at a local ranch.

“I enjoy seeing where the learners take it. Many think they can’t create something that will make an impact,” Byrd said. “I get to witness them becoming empowered.”

Graffam is inspired that the learners are discovering empathy and compassion in themselves. Graffam cites one example of 7th grade learner Hayden Byrd, who delivered small plants with a note to victims of the Bobcat Fire. She said one of the recipients posted their appreciation on social media. 

“The learners are seeing how other people are affected by events in their lives and, in turn, learning what impact they can have,” Graffam said.

iLEAD Lancaster 7th grader Dylan Byrd hosted a food drive.

Dylan Byrd, and iLEAD Lancaster 7th grader,  was pleasantly surprised with the viral nature of his project. “I was grocery shopping with my family and began to notice that other families were not getting much,” Byrd said. “They didn’t seem to have what I had. And that affected me.”

Through a series of conversations and some social media activity, Byrd soon found himself with a much larger project on his hands. He got connected to Virgin Orbit, who wanted to sponsor his work with a $1,000 donation. This led to Byrd partnering with One Love Food Ministry, a Lancaster-based nonprofit organization that creates dignified food programs with daily meal support for members of the community.

Byrd participated in distributing food one day before Thanksgiving, when over 300 families received Thanksgiving meals. 

“I realized this can happen to anyone,” Byrd said. “We all have to realize that people just need a boost up sometimes.”

iLEAD Lancaster 6th graders Erin Bixel and Sadie Lopez served meals to people experiencing homelessness.

Two 6th grade learners, Erin Bixel and Sadie Lopez, volunteered at Grace Resources to serve hot meals to people experiencing homelessness. Bixel said that Grace Resources is a fantastic local partner that provides food, clothing, hygiene kits, diapers and classes to help meet the needs of people in the community. In addition to the recent hot meals served, Bixel said she and Lopez are also collecting coats and warm clothing for their January Coat Giveaway. 

“I chose to volunteer at Grace Resources for my project because I think it’s important to help those in need,” Bixel said. “I know I am very fortunate to have a home, plenty of food, warm clothes and a family — not everybody does.”

In addition, the iLEAD Lancaster middle schoolers learn about self-compassion, which is extending compassion to oneself in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure or general suffering. The facilitators believe that this understanding, in addition to their work showing compassion in their community, benefits learners now and later in life. 

I think this project is important because it shows the learner that they can make a difference in someone’s life with a simple act of kindness,” Graffam said. 

“They are learning how to be citizens and how to leave an impact,” Evenson said. “Lots of middle schoolers want to be influencers, and it’s important to show them there are many kinds of compassionate influencers out there.”

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