Caledonia students lift each other up through ‘be nice.’ initiative

CALEDONIA TOWNHSIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Mental health is important for everyone to pay attention to, but that need has been even more noticeable at Caledonia Community Schools in the last several years as students have lost classmates to various tragedies, including suicide.

Katie Dorband started as a counselor at the high school in the fall of 2018.

“Just prior to when I came to the district, (they) had experienced some loss. It was also a time when they recognized that there were a lot of mental health needs with students and the community, and not necessarily a system in place districtwide to support student mental health needs,” Dorband said.

During that difficult time, leaders in the school district responded by adding mental health services and implementing the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan’s “be nice.” initiative. Be nice. is an action plan, which stands for “notice, invite, challenge and empower.” It is now in more than 150 schools in West Michigan, including Caledonia schools.

“Years ago, it was really important to let students know that there are people here that love you and want to help you in any way they can. Especially with dealing with loss. It’s really, really tough to cope with,” explained Camy Asper, a senior at the high school who is a leader for the be nice. program.

She has noticed how learning the tools from this program has helped her and her classmates deal with everyday situations. Asper recalled a moment during her freshman year when she walked into the bathroom and noticed another girl crying but was too shy and uncertain to ask her if she was OK or approach her at all.

The same situation came up again a few weeks ago.

“This time, I asked her if she was OK, and I thought to myself, I would never have done that in my freshman year, but senior year, I realized that I have the tools and it’s OK for me to ask and I know that they need help.”

Asper thinks she would have been able to do the same thing four years ago if she knew then what she knows now about mental health.

One of the goals of the be nice. action plan is to normalize the help-seeking process.

“When I came here, I did really notice that some students felt like they really had to put themselves out there if they were not OK, and having that courage isn’t always possible when you’re in a dark place,” Dorband said. “Be nice. is meant to normalize mental health concerns, since everyone deals with mental health.”

Dorband compared it to learning about physical health.

“It’s the same thing,” she said.

The school held assemblies the year the program was introduced to teach all of the students the tools they will need to notice when something isn’t right with a classmate, invite them to talk about it, challenge them to take the next step and empower them to make a change.

There are approximately 1,500 students in the high school building, which Dorband says means they have 1,500 sets of eyes on everyone, creating a huge network of support.

They never could have imagined that in the year following the implementation of the program, a pandemic would hit, forcing students into a world of uncertainty and isolation. Dorband explained that having the program in place was very important because students know what to look for in classmates who may be learning virtually and not spending as much time with friends.

It would be impossible to quantify the impact of the program in specific terms, but Dorband believes it has saved lives.

“I do think that students have received help who wouldn’t have received help otherwise. So, yes, I do think that having this program and having the language that students can speak about these things with ease and on a regular basis has and will continue to save lives,” Dorband said.