UMatter Week at Birmingham’s Seaholm High School

It was cold and dreary outside, but the mood inside Birmingham’s Seaholm High School was warm and bright as hundreds of students filled the auditorium January 24 to hear moving messages of hope and empowerment during the school’s first-ever UMatter Week, sponsored by The Friendship Circle.

For teens struggling with the rigors of academic life, mental illness, low self-esteem or other personal crises, the message of this Teacher TEDTalk assembly was clear:

You are not alone. You are strong. Your feelings matter. You matter.

And help is within reach.

Powerful Messages, Personal Stories

The speakers – four in all – had different, very personal stories to tell, but they all shared a common bond as members of the Seaholm High family.

“I was changed in an unchanged world,” math teacher Sonali Barve told the students, recalling the loneliness and emptiness she felt after losing her mother in 2015, just weeks before the new school year. “I was afraid I didn’t have anything more to give.”

But those fears, she said, were soon allayed as cards, hugs, e-mails and other signs of support began pouring in from those around her. It showed her, she said, that “I matter to them.”

She encouraged students to be kind, telling the crowd that even the smallest act of kindness can make a world of difference.
Alyonka Larionov, a Seaholm alumna, returned to her high school to share her 10-year battle with anorexia and how it nearly killed her. Her recovery was slow and painful.

“It is hard to be the best version of ourselves,” she said.

But it is possible – and it starts with being true to one’s self and acknowledging the needs of those around you.

Sonali Barve talks about Seaholm’s support after the death of her mother.

Nothing is more powerful, she said, than telling someone else: “I see you. I hear you. You matter to me.” she said.

Then came the most heart-wrenching story of all, as counselor Brian Flatter recounted the “soul-piercing pain” he and his wife suffered when they lost their 10-month-old daughter to a heart condition.

“Bad things are going happen,” he told the teens, “but you don’t need to suffer forever, and you need not suffer alone.”

Don’t let tragedy define you as a victim, he said, but rather as a survivor – or maybe even a hero.

“You can move forward from something catastrophic that happened but to do that you need to find that connection with people in your life who matter.”

The fourth and final speaker, Spanish teacher January Hladki, took a lighter approach, weaving humor into her narrative of battling generalized anxiety disorder and depression – and the tool she used to escape those feelings: her smartphone.

“I worried about worrying,” she said, adding that she is sure many of her students do the exact same thing. “I was emotionally alone while my face was in my phone.”

By putting her phone down and interacting face to face with her son, her husband, friends and others, she discovered that her life was full of meaningful moments.

And she urged others to do the same.

Why UMatter

Wednesday marked the midpoint of Seaholm’s first-ever UMatter Week, a student-led, staff-guided initiative seeking to empower teens struggling with isolation and reassure them that there is strength in seeking help.

At the start of the school year, students and staff met with Friendship Circle representatives, who helped the teens tailor the program for Seaholm’s student community, said Molly Williams, teen coordinator and UMatter facilitator at Friendship Circle.

Wednesday’s Teacher TEDTalks were just one component of the campaign. Students also decorated the halls with inspirational messages. Each day, there are events and workshops aimed at equipping teens with the tools they need to help themselves – and their peers. In addition, some students have participated in SAFETalk training, while others will share their stories through teen-led panels and lead freshman-focused initiatives.

Sophia Hewitt next to the mural she created for the Black Student Union.

The teachers and staff at Seaholm said students have really embraced UMatter Week.

“I had a student come to me after the first assembly and tell me this week has really changed her,” said Sherree Wilson, Seaholm’s crisis intervention counselor. “I think this is very good for a school like Seaholm, where there’s such a push for perfection. Students here [and elsewhere] are carrying around a lot.”

To learn more about UMatter, CLICK HERE.

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