By Crystal Hayduk
More than 13 months since COVID-19 closed Chelsea School District buildings, forcing students into remote learning, the high school rolled out its fifth annual #WhyYouMatter campaign.
The school-wide art project was unveiled on April 26, coinciding with the district’s return to an in-person instruction model (with virtual for families who needed that option).
According to the project’s advisor, art teacher Laura Naar, the campaign’s goal this year is for participants to regain their personal “sense of purpose and importance, as well as the sense of community and connection that has been lost over the isolating year.”
Students on the #WhyYouMatter committee decided to revisit the photo project that launched the campaign in 2017. Senior Carlee Copland said the original photo project happened before the Class of 2021 began high school, so it was new to them.
“With the pandemic, it’s easier for students who have remained virtual to take their pictures at home … and email the digital portraits,” she said. “We did portraits by appointment on Saturdays for some who preferred that, too.”
Every student and staff member participated in social/emotional lessons during Bulldog Block, a 30-minute period added this year for students to receive extra support. The lessons facilitated exploration to define one’s own importance in the world.
AP Photography students took portraits of individual students and staff, each holding a whiteboard with their written response to the question, “Why do you matter?” Virtual students assisted with photoshopping. The pictures were printed into posters and hung on the walls in the high school hallways.
Twelfth grader Jessica Emmert explained the campaign’s postcard follow-up: “We were going to send postcards last spring, but it never happened due to COVID-19. We made a new design to fit this year’s theme. The idea is to tell someone else why they matter and mail the card to them.”
Additionally, wallet-sized cards were distributed to all students with information on available mental health resources.
The campaign received generous funding from the Washtenaw Mental Health Public Safety Preservation Millage, the Chelsea Education Foundation, and the Chelsea Community Foundation. “We are absolutely grateful to these organizations for funding the project,” said Naar.
Before the first campaign, Naar said students knew their GPA, SAT scores, or how many likes they had received on an Instagram post, but they got stuck when asked why they are important. “We don’t have a lot of answers right now, but one thing we absolutely should be able to answer is why we are important in this world—why we matter,” she said. “It’s equally important for us to understand the gifts that others have to give us, and how we are all connected.”
Molly Jacobson, a twelfth-grade student, believes there is widespread value in the process. “Even if your school is not doing this, you could do it with your family or alone if you need or want to,” she said. “Really, anyone can do it.”
Abby Dobos, another senior on the committee, said participating in the campaign the past few years has been one of her favorite parts of high school, and she’s glad they brought back the portrait project.
“WhyYouMatter definitely worked very differently this year due to the pandemic, but overall, I’m really impressed that we were able to get more than 700 photos,” she said. “I’m so proud of Naar and all the work she has put into this project—it has definitely paid off. Being able to see all the photos up [on the walls] felt really good, but it felt even better to know that all of those students and staff members have their own importance and value. Reading what everyone wrote was inspirational because it’s a reminder that everyone is unique, and everyone has a purpose.”
Portraits taken during the 2021 campaign can be viewed by visiting https://www.whyyoumatter.org/our-work/campaigns/whyyoumatter/2021-portraits/.