Beyond Bullying: Local students take part in 26th annual SADD conference

Times Observer photo by Stacey Gross Clockwise: Miranda Mung, Payton Hefright, Megan Wilson, and Hope Hefright work on the active listening activity presented by Melissa Hopely.

“You need to step up and speak up for other people,” Judge Skerda said during the closing remarks of the 26th annual Students Against Destructive Decisions conference Wednesday. “When you’re doing that for others, you’re really doing it for yourself,” she said.

This year’s conference, with the theme Beyond Bullying, was attended by over 100 SADD students in the county. Pink shirts that said “you can sit with us” reflected the theme.

SADD Coordinator Jessica Arnold said that this year’s conference was a great example of the “amazing team that works together” to bring the SADD conference to students. The free event relies on participation and teamwork between school SADD advisors, community representatives, and the businesses that sponsor the event. “We live in such a great area,” said Arnold. “I’m proud to be a part of changing out kids see themselves.”

“It’s just such an important message,” said Arnold. “We just need to be kind to one another,” she said. Arnold, who’s been the county’s SADD advisor for three years, said that her favorite thing about the event is seeing all the students getting together around a common positive message. ‘It’s huge.”

Wednesday’s keynote speaker, Melissa Hopely, is a motivational speaker, mental health and anti-bullying advocate, and the author of “The People You Meet in Real Life.” Her book, she said, is the product of a series of events that led up to someone who bullied her in school emailing her as an adult and apologizing. “It opened my eyes,” said Hopely. The conference offered four different breakout sessions, and in hers, Hopely talked about active listening and how students can help peers who are struggling. Things like “I” rather than “you” statements, making eye contact, posture, and asking open-ended questions are skills that may not come naturally, she said, but can make all the difference. “Everyone has a story,” said Hopely. “We are all unique, and we shouldn’t be judging one another,” she said. To illustrate how difficult it can be to actively listen to others, Hopely had students break into groups of four. One student had to sit back-to-back with another and instruct them in drawing a particular shape. As they did, the other two students were instructed to distract them in every way possible aside from taking the pen from the “drawer.”

Students who played the role of “instructor” said afterward how difficult it was to help the drawers, and the drawers articulated how difficult it was to hear anything except the “distractors.” That, said Hopely, is exactly what life is like. As important as it is to reach out to one another and to be of help, it’s equally difficult sometimes. It takes intention and focus. It takes remembering, said Hopely, that the vast majority of communication is nonverbal. And with social media literally at our fingertips all the time, said Hopely, “it’s really important to remove all those distractions and just listen to one another.”

At the end of the event, Judge Skerda asked students to close their eyes and recall one thing they’d done that they were particularly not proud of that no one knew about. Then, she asked them to think about one thing in the present that they’d done that they were particularly proud of, but that no one knew about. “So much of what we do in our lives is silent,” Skerda said. “But who we become as an adult is about those silent decisions.”