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‘Time for us to rise up’

Approximately 100 students from five middle schools and high schools in the Heart of Virginia vowed to create change in their schools.

The students, from Charlotte, Prince Edward, Cumberland, Buckingham and Amelia counties, took part in the Truth Empowerment Summit, a three-day event from July 9-11 where they heard from speakers, participated in workshops, were placed in teams with students from different schools, learned how to process strong emotions, maintain eye contact and confident posture and developed plans with their school counselors to support classmates and create a united environment in the schools and among their classmates, disarming bullies and harmful behavior. Students used sticky notes to compliment and build each other up, and removed sticky notes with negative or harmful labels.

School counselors were also instructed on how to work with students to implement action plans to combat bullying.

The summit was held Monday and Wednesday at the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Prince Edward County and Tuesday at Snyder Hall at Hampden-Sydney College’s Kirk Athletic Center.Capping the summit was a presentation Wednesday at 2 p.m., where area superintendents and county representatives came to hear what students have developed.

Randolph-Henry High School student Emma Silver said she was motivated to use what she learned from the summit and help her peers.

“I am walking away from the Truth Summit with confidence,” Silver said. “I feel so empowered, and I have this drive within me to make everyone else feel as good as I feel. I want to go up to the schools, and I want to make a difference. I’m so excited to see what all of us can integrate into our schools, and not just our schools, all schools. Because this is going to grow.”

Jenny McIntosh and Savannah McIntosh Huddleston, founders of My Truth Bomb, a motivational organization that encourages youth to become the positive change needed in their culture, organized the summit.

Randolph-Henry High School Counselor Kaylei Jones credits McIntosh and the school division for supporting efforts to give students an environment where they feel empowered instead of brought down.

“Our superintendent, Dr. Nancy Leonard, has been supporting this program from the beginning and our students were so proud to have had the opportunity to present their Spring Semester Action Plan to her during the closing ceremony,” Jones said. “They were encouraged by Dr. Leonard’s excitement for their ideas and are even more motivated to make a change in our schools knowing she is cheering them on. Our students also hope to present about the Truth Empowerment Summit and their action plan at an upcoming school board meeting.”

McIntosh, during the July 11 presentation, spoke about why they organized My Truth Bomb and the Youth Empowerment Summit. She said Savannah was severely bullied in school in Florida due to a cleft palate that required multiple surgeries.

Students would tell her daily, “You are the ugliest thing I have ever seen,” and “How could you look at yourself in the mirror looking like that?”

“I said, ‘Savannah, what do you want me to do?’” McIntosh said. “Do you want me to take you out? Do you want to go to private school? Do you want homeschool? … She said, ‘No. I’m going to stay because I don’t want the bullies to win.’ And she said, ‘I’m going to stay because I want to be bigger than them.’”

“I’m sitting there, as a mom, realizing that if she’s got the guts, then I’ve got to have the guts,” McIntosh said.

McIntosh went on to deliver motivational addresses at schools in Florida before moving to Farmville.

Once in Farmville, she was approached by Jones, who said the school faced similar bullying.

“One particular year I had so many female students coming to my office struggling with peer relationships from friendships to family conflict to boyfriends,” Jones said. “Many of the students seemed to be struggling with an overall lack of self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness.”

She and Savannah went on to deliver addresses at several other schools in the area.

McIntosh had a plan to create a summit and when she approached Dr. Amy Griffin, Cumberland County Public Schools superintendent, she said Griffin fully embraced it. McIntosh also spoke with school counselors and administration.

The goal of the summit, McIntosh said, is to build a culture that allows kindness and courage to flourish and disarms the bullies’ influence.

Students, more than ever, are facing overwhelming stress and uncertainty.

“We have never seen a generation more hit with suicides, drugs, killings, shootings, walk outs, bullying, it’s unprecedented,” McIntosh said. “Some of these things are life and death, and we know this isn’t the only answer … but we know that this is an answer.”

“The reality is, it’s not time for us to shrink back and point fingers, it’s time for us to rise up,” McIntosh said.

A powerpoint showed the school shootings that took place in 2018 alone, including a shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February where 17 died and Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas in May where nine died.

Savannah similarly encouraged the students. She noted their courage and transformation over the three days they participated in the camp.

“This room is filled with nothing but world changers,” Savannah said. “We need one another in order to make a culture shift in our schools, and we need each other to rise up.”

Students from each school during the Wednesday presentation held a banner encouraging people to rise up. They held their finger in the air, symbolizing the event’s theme to rise and take positive action.

A student from each participating school spoke about their goals in taking part of the event. Goals included helping the needy and hurting, eliminating shame among their peers and advocating for acceptance and love.

After the presentation, students and counselors had tables representing each school, and boards that detailed their month-to-month plan.