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Photo by Crystal Hayduk. A scene from the opening night of the #WhyYouMatter art project.

(Publisher’s note: Although this event took place earlier in the week, it is publishing today to give it special prominence.)

By Crystal Hayduk

Looking from the outside in, anyone would guess that most students at Chelsea High School (CHS) are average teenagers going about their daily lives – attending class, doing homework, participating in extracurricular activities, hanging out with friends, raiding the family’s refrigerator, and sleeping late at every opportunity.

But tragedy has a way of transforming the mundane.

Between October, 2015 and August, 2016, three CHS students died – one in a car accident and two by suicide. The heartbreaking loss of three promising young individuals left the community reeling with grief.

Cheyenne Shemwell, a senior, said that the death of her friends opened her eyes to see how easily life can pass. “You never know what you have until you lose it,” she said. “I didn’t want this to happen to anyone else. It made me want to help others.”

The culmination of the desire to help others is the #WhyYouMatter Campaign, with an art show that was unveiled at Chelsea High School on Jan. 17. The show is a unique display of 958 portraits of high school students and staff, photographed holding a whiteboard on which they had written an empowering statement about themselves answering, “Why do you matter?”

The campaign serves to help heal the anguish of a hurting community.

CHS art teacher Geo Rutherford said that last fall, she and counselor Jason Murphy accompanied 15 students to attend the Jostens Renaissance Leadership Conference in Lansing where they heard a dynamic speaker, Mike Smith. Smith’s talk inspired the students to talk about the losses and brainstorm a helpful response.

Between the counseling office’s idea to participate in a suicide prevention effort, students’ discussion of their needs, Rutherford’s vision of a poster project, and art teacher Laura Naar’s insistence to include everyone, #WhyYouMatter was conceived.

The campaign efforts were aided by English teachers, who provided lessons to facilitate students to identify their own distinctive importance and to refer students with self-worth issues to the counseling office.

Ultimately, the students were the driving force behind the campaign, with the support of teachers and administration. Students were responsible for producing the art, from the photography to the printing and hanging of the portraits, to creating special displays and advertising, but perhaps most importantly, coming together as a student body to support each other.

Junior Lili Imboden said that through the project, students searched themselves and talked with each other to develop a greater self-realization of who they are and their purpose.

“You ask any student what their GPA is, or their ACT or SAT scores, and they can tell you,” said Rutherford. “But when you ask them why they matter [in this world], they struggle really hard to answer that. That’s a problem. These kids need to know that they are important. They should not be defined by a test score, but that’s how a lot of them see themselves.”

During the welcoming comments at the campaign’s unveiling, Murphy said that the deaths of the three students last year “gutted us as a school and as a community.”

Rutherford added to Murphy’s statement. “When artists hurt, or are angry, or passionate, they make art,” she said. “Each of the 958 pictures here represents a conversation.”

Naar thanked the students for their bravery in allowing “a vulnerable moment that put their faces and words on a poster for everyone to see.”

Members of the school’s show choir, Company C, sang “Hosanna” before the audience was released to view the portrait gallery, which encompasses the Commons and two floors of academic hallways.

CHS Principal Mike Kapolka said, “From my perspective, finding a creative method to imprint the value of empathy on our students is often a difficult endeavor.  With this campaign, it was inspiring to witness our students take real ownership of a teacher-led idea and then completely make it their own because they believed in the power of supporting their fellow classmates.”

Senior Taylor Freyre said in summary, “Everyone has something about them that shines. This project highlights that everyone really does matter.”

The #WhyYouMatter display will be open to the public through Feb. 5, from 3 – 7 p.m. on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends.

For more information and a small sample of the portrait gallery, visit http://www.whyyoumatter.org/. There is also a “How We Did It” tab to provide instruction to other schools who may want to create their own campaigns.

Follow the #WhyYouMatter Campaign on Twitter @why_you_matter. #WhyYouMatter was partially funded by a grant from the Chelsea Education Foundation. Donations can be made by writing a check to Chelsea High School; write #WhyYouMatter in the memo space.     


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