VVS students to activate empathy with Sweethearts & Heroes program

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VERONA — The current and last school years have presented students across the U.S. with some social and emotional obstacles, but a nationally renowned program is coming to Verona to help.

Sweethearts & Heroes will work with middle and high school students at Vernon-Verona-Sherrill Central Schools from Monday, Jan. 31, through Thursday, Feb. 3.

“What did students lose during 2020?” asked Tom Murphy, director and co-founder of Sweethearts & Heroes, in a statement.

His answer: “Developmental windows were disrupted. That’s why Sweethearts & Heroes is going to schools this year to focus on the human skills, such as empathy, compassion, and the other relationship skills that cause struggles for so many students. Our students need help with their social and emotional health — now more than ever. We like to say, ‘You can’t be a teacher of literacy without being a teacher of humanity first.’ That’s the focus that needs to happen for our children during this school year.”

Sweethearts & Heroes will spend Monday and Tuesday with VVS high school students, presenting its traditional, 90-minute program. Murphy’s original Sweethearts & Heroes presentation focuses on “Empathetic Fitness” and HOPE (Hold On, Possibilities Exist!) with an aim at preventing bullying and suicide.

For 15 years, he has presented what he calls “‘the ‘stop, drop and roll’ of bullying” to more than 2 million students in thousands of schools from New England to Hawaii. Murphy will be joined by Rick Yarosh, a retired sergeant with the U.S. Army — injured in Iraq with burns over most of his body — who gives messages about overcoming adversity.

“Just talking about awareness doesn’t fix anything,” said Murphy, of St. Albans, Vt. “What separates us from other anti-bullying presentations and projects is that we give each student a plan to activate their innate superpowers — to empower them to help others that are struggling with bullying or other challenges that all students face. Our message and strategies go way beyond bullying. We are about humanity, giving HOPE to the hopeless and making the world a better place.”

High school students will also be treated to Circle, which is based on the ancient ritual of sitting in a circle to communicate and build empathy. Sweethearts & Heroes teammate Pat Fish leads Circle efforts. He first saw Sweethearts & Heroes as a middle school student in South Glens Falls nearly a decade ago.

“Circle is about building a support network for students in all grades, so that when they are struggling with social emotional obstacles, they will have the resources necessary to manage those struggles,” Murphy said. “If you dedicate to Circle, if you commit to Circle on a regular basis, an entire culture can change. We’ve seen it happen thousands of times.”

Wednesday, Feb. 2, is Health Day in VVS, so Murphy, Yarosh and Fish will spend the morning in breakout sessions, discussing health and wellness with middle school students. In the afternoon, students will see Sweethearts & Heroes’ signature presentation. On Thursday, middle school students will take on a full day of Circle work.

“We are pleased to welcome Sweethearts & Heroes back to VVS,” said district Superintendent Martha Group. “We appreciate the impact of their messages of empathy, inclusivity, and overcoming adversity on our students. That we’re are able to offer this program to our students is especially meaningful during this time.”

In late 2021, Sweethearts & Heroes released 13 Pillows For Affective Teachers, a fictional and inspiring allegorical novel that covers the themes of HOPE and Action found in the Sweethearts & Heroes curriculum. The book is based on real students and teachers that Sweethearts & Heroes has encountered during its time visiting schools. 13 Pillows is available on Amazon.

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