By LARISSA COPELAND
Beginning this year, students at Independence and Lakeview Elementary schools are being celebrated with special birthday lunches and the chance to spend time with volunteers in the community.
Thanks to the efforts of members of the community, the Beautiful Day Foundation is making Independence and Lakeview its pilot schools for the 2019-2020 school year.
Once a month, community volunteers, who have been screened by the Beautiful Day Foundation, will visit Independence and Lakeview Elementary schools to celebrate the birthdays of students whose birthdays take place in that month.
The celebrations will include a special birthday table with tablecloths, plates, napkins and balloons.
The children receive a special meal, a bracelet and a custom-made birthday card.
All of this is an effort to show children that their lives are worthy of celebration.
The organization began in Duncan in 2013, when founders Leah Miller and Michele Johnson started Beautiful Day to help bridge the gap between older and younger community members.
“It was on the heels of a string of violent crimes in Stephens County. There were three murders committed in a 10-month period, and they all had something in common: they were committed by the hands of young people,” she said.
“We were feeling that, somehow, there was a disconnect going on (for a young person) to be able to take such vicious actions in a community that you call home.”
Miller and Johnson realized that, while they could not have done anything minutes or hours before the crimes took place, they could set into motion a standard of acceptance and love for children still in elementary school.
“We thought, ‘What if we started better and more personally weaving together adult community members with very small community members, and help kids feel part of the community they call home?”
The result: a program that sent volunteers into schools, once a month, for face-to-face time with some of the smallest citizens.
“We’ve found that little kids are different than adults,” Miller said. “They can make a connection during a 20-minute lunch period.”
That means talking about everything from friends to family to books or whatever might be on the elementary students’ minds.
All with the goal of showing individual students that they matter, and that they are worth celebrating.
“Inclusion of kids is the core principle of what we’re doing,” she said. “The whole point of it is inclusion. If you have a birthday, then you belong to Beautiful Day. You’re part of what we’re doing.”
Foundation members have worked to make sure that they follow through on that message of inclusion.
Children whose birthdays fall within summer months are celebrated during the first and last months of each school year – August for July birthdays and May for June birthdays. For students with allergies, organization members work closely with school nurses to ensure that they bring a suitable meal for the child.
Students who move into the district after their birthday month has passed are included, also, and celebrated during the organization’s next visit.
“We want every kid finishing that year really feeling seen by the community that they live in,” Miller said.
In addition, Beautiful Day also coordinates for cupcakes to be delivered to the classrooms once a month, allowing the birthday students to celebrate with their classmates.
For the last several months, organizers have been working behind the scenes to bring the program to Yukon schools. That includes people like Yukon Public Schools superintendent Dr. Jason Simeroth, who, Miller said, was “very certain” that he wanted Beautiful Day to have a presence in Yukon schools.
Miller encouraged anyone interested in volunteering to visit the organization’s website at www.beautifuldayfoundation.net and click the “get involved” link to complete the application.
“It can be handled in a few minutes from their computer,” she said.
Each volunteer must undergo a background check, she added, but those are paid for through volunteers’ fundraising efforts. The only cost to volunteers, she said, is the $15 for the Beautiful Day T-shirt that they wear to celebrations.
“The reason the T-shirt is so important is because it becomes a brand that’s recognized for loving everyone,” Miller said.
The time commitment, she said, is up to each individual.
“Lunch periods are quite long for schools the size of Lakeview and Independence,” she said. “And we understand that there are a lot of people coming from work, who maybe can only sit with one lunch period for 25 minutes. But that time meant everything to the kid who sat next to them.”
Ultimately, Miller said she hopes to see participants come full circle and become volunteers themselves.
“We really are trying to build a solid volunteer base so every kid is spoken to by someone wearing a Beautiful Day shirt,” she said. “That’s how generational sustainability happens in a community.”
Monetary donations are needed as well. For information, contact local liasons Julie Simeroth at 650-7450 or Gracie Kroutil at 822-0405.
Anyone making a monetary donation may specify that the funds are to be used within Yukon. The Beautiful Day Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and donations are tax deductible.