By Mary Mann     Mar-01-2018

In an effort to reach out to children, reduce bullying and stem violence in schools, lunch aides in the South Orange-Maplewood School District participated in the Sandy Hook Promise Start With Hello Week from February 6-10.

The event included having each lunch aide wear a “Hello My Name Is…” name tag and a “Start With Hello” bracelet.

The local “Start with Hello” initiative was spearheaded by SOMSD Sandy Hook Promise Leader Jennifer Ostrega Gold in coordination with district food service director Pat Johnson.

“Lunch aides are witness to some of the most socially challenging times of the school day, recess and lunch,” said Gold. The aides participating included cashiers, servers and table aides.

“All lunch aides wore ‘Hello My Name Is’ name tags and together with Pomptonian [the district’s food service vendor] we got everyone on board with this initiative at Jefferson, but also South Mountain, Clinton and Marshall.” Gold is also working with Maplewood Middle School and Tuscan School.

The effort is, unfortunately, more timely than ever with recent national events.

During Start With Hello Week, Gold held an in-person meeting with Patricia Johnson and a liaison from Pomptonian that “has resulted in the beginning of a partnership.”

Gold explained that “After learning about Sandy Hook Promise’s free programming, I became a volunteer Promise Leader. I invited Mark Barden, co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, to speak at Marshall Elementary School in 2016, and with the support of Jefferson school social worker, Caitlin Alleman, we became one of the thousands of schools across the country who are carrying out this program, trying to fulfill Sandy Hook Promise’s mission: preventing violence by educating kids to prevent social isolation.”

Another partner is Cathy Rowe, the SOMA Two Towns for All Ages coordinator, who has worked with Gold to bring seniors who are retired teaching professionals to volunteer at Jefferson, where they are teaching drama workshop and knitting.

“In order to accomplish the goal of Sandy Hook Promise, I’m also the founder of Kind Hearts Theater, where I teach a class at Beyond the Bell at SOMSD. I believe that teaching connectivity in order to avoid social isolation should be part of the school curriculum.”

“We are working together with social workers and staff to reduce school bullying and violence. We are also doing a great service to our seniors who can also feel socially isolated in the winter, ” said Gold.

Gold reports that Dr.Thomas Shea, the district’s school security director, has also been supportive of the initiative: “It seems to complement the projects that he has been implementing since he started last August.”

“I believe that Sandy Hook Promise’s grassroots program is giving us the toolkit to plant the seeds of inclusion and togetherness,” said Gold. “This is a positive step for our kids and I hope we can create a more inclusive environment in lunch and recess.”