This week’s column is written by Holly Hughes Stoner, my wife of 40 years. For the past thirty-five years, she has worked with youth as an elementary school teacher, a middle school teacher and as a high school teacher. Today she is a marriage and family therapist and serves as the Director of Teen and Parent Wellness for Living Compass. I call her the “teen whisperer” because of her love of teens and her ability to get them to talk about what is most on their minds and in their hearts.  Normally she serves as the editor of this weekly column, but I have asked this week, in the light of the school shooting in Florida, if she could write this column to express her admiration and passion for our young people.

Over the last forty plus years, as a professional, I have had the distinct honor of spending most of my days with awesome, funny, hard-working, and for the most part, innocent young people, and thus have seen children of all ages do wonderful things for others.

I once arrived at school after the death of my grandmother to find my desk covered with condolence notes from my sweet second graders. They had seen me cry when I got the news over the phone in my classroom and wanted to make a difference.

I have seen teenagers work tirelessly to raise thousands of dollars for an orphanage in Guatemala. These children had been to the orphanage on a trip with their Spanish class, had seen the needs, and wanted to make a difference.

Thirty years ago a student at our local high school was diagnosed with cancer and the other students wanted to do something, to make a difference. So with the support of the teachers and the community, they developed something called the Shorewood Games, modeled after the Olympics, and year after year new students continued the work and have now collectively raised four hundred thousand dollars to fight childhood cancer.

I have seen students work long hours to practice and create fabulous theater productions, hone skills as musicians and athletes, create and run clubs that bring awareness of social issues that matter to them, and speak out against injustices with youthful optimism.  All in all, I come away from my years of being surrounded by young people feeling inspired and grateful for their energy, hopefulness, and presence.

Not all of my students, however, were in a place to give back.  Some were struggling with challenging situations at home or in their neighborhoods. Some had learning struggles or were dealing with depression or anxiety and getting through each day was a challenge.  These children needed our care and attention all the more. They needed us to make a difference in their lives.

With the horrific news coming out of Florida this past week I am reminded of all of my students, and I am again struggling with wondering what we can do to make a difference, to make the world better for our children of all ages.  I know that there are things to be done on the policy level and that is extremely important, and we must also do things right in our very own neighborhoods, with the kids and the families who live nearby and are going to our local schools. We must let them know that they are valued, reaching out especially to those who are vulnerable and lost.

We might befriend a child by showing interest in their activities, maybe even going to their volleyball game or school concert. We might offer to sit for a family that can’t afford a sitter, thus getting to know the kids better and helping out the parents. We might volunteer in a classroom, coach a team, or chaperone a field trip. We might offer to care for a child after school or on days when there is no school. The opportunities to do something meaningful to help a child are endless.

We can make a difference, one child, one teen at a time, and we must.

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