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Students at North County Middle School came together recently to host a “No One Eats Alone” celebration.

North County Middle School Strategy Specialist Angela Zolman said Social Worker Nikki Sprinkles Gregory, who also heads up the North County Backpack Program, came to her and the Friendlinks Club about hosting a special celebration.

“No One Eats Alone is a program that was founded by the parents of Lili Smith, a young lady who was born with cranial facial syndrome and who was subjected to social isolation during her middle school years,” Zolman explained. “After Miss Lili passed from an unexpected medical issue, her parents founded ‘Beyond Differences,’ an organization geared towards addressing social isolation. From this organization, came the movement to help middle school-aged students address the importance of social inclusion.”

Zolman said Gregory heard about this movement when Francis Slay, with Home State Health, gave a presentation regarding it during a St. Francois County Community Partnership meeting. Intrigued by the idea, Gregory contacted Slay at Home State Health for local program sponsorship and he agreed. She then offered the idea to the middle school’s peer inclusive club, Friendlinks.

“After that, the kids ran with the idea and created the coolest inclusive week to ensure that we met new friends and, of course, had lunch with them,” Zolman said. “Our students started the week with a ‘Hat Monday,’ where the students were allowed to wear hats for a $1 donation that benefited ‘Friends of Kids with Cancer.’”

Zolman said her students also had an opportunity to watch "Lili's Story" on YouTube and participated in grassroot meetings on how to help others to feel included. She said on Tuesday they hosted an "Everybody is Wacky Day" where the kids dressed all crazy and each member of the student body wrote their inclusion ideas on apples and hung them on a "Giving Tree."

“The best part of this day was when my Friendlink members and their families created 530 inspirational cards and hung one from every single locker,” Zolman said. “The student body came in at 8 a.m., went to their lockers and found handwritten notes and pictures. We've had a lot of compliments regarding those notes. I also noticed that there are still quite a few hanging on the lockers today.”

Zolman said Wednesday was very special to them. They hosted a "Twins Day" and they also honored the memory of their young friend, Carlei Huff, who recently passed away from cancer, by wearing teal ribbons to honor what would have been her 16th birthday.

“Carlei brought so many people together with her spirited attitude and we couldn't imagine celebrating friendship without thinking of her,” said Zolman. “Thursday we shook up the lunch schedule by hosting a "lunch mix-up." We sorted the students by handing them random jolly rancher candies, then we directed them to the color-coded tables.”

Zolman explained the tables had questions on them and that the kids were encouraged to ask their new lunch buddies those questions. On Friday the NCMS Student Council held an assembly gearing up for MAP testing week and to surprise the Special Olympics athletes.

“The student council had the athletes run through a banner and receive a well-deserved standing ovation from the rest of the student body,” said Zolman. “Several members of the student body had hand-drawn signs cheering on our athletes. Personally, this ended up being one of the most moving moments of my career.”

Zolman said members of the Friendlinks club ended the day by enjoying a pizza party with officers from the Desloge Police Department. She said they have been a consistent and positive presence in the middle school building.

“We wanted the officers to know how much we appreciate them and that we recognize the good they bring to the community,” Zolman said. “I am so honored to have a front-row seat in the proactive and inclusive environment being established by this generation of kids. I know that sometimes the true character of this group might get swallowed up with all of the negativity that is in the world and we may get discouraged by what we see portrayed on the media.”

Zolman said that when she sees the students who come forth with their parents and selflessly make posters and create activities to benefit the community, she realizes what a beautiful wealth of potential and kindness this generation has in store for everyone.

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Renee Bronaugh is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3617 or rbronaugh@dailyjournalonline.com

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