For two days this week, fifth graders at the Johnson Crossing Academic Center took a break from the normal hustle and bustle of the school day to remember the importance of being kind.
It was the premise behind the Youth Frontiers Kindness Retreat, which came to Fremont for the first time on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.
Youth Frontiers is a national organization that provides schools around the country with “experiences that inspire character, civility and community,” according to its website. It hosts day-long retreats that help kids reflect on concepts like kindness, courage and respect.
The Youth Frontiers kindness retreat is available for fourth- and fifth-grade classes, and so the entire Johnson Crossing fifth grade class was divided into two sections, with one attending Tuesday’s five-hour retreat, and the other attending Wednesday’s.
“The whole goal of the day is that everybody walks in here and will be treated with nothing but kindness,” said Jacob Niewinski, lead retreat facilitator for Youth Frontiers. “And then by the end of the day, they’re going to make a commitment on how they can show that kindness to others in their lives as well.”
The event featured high energy activities like games, singing and dancing to break the ice and help kids feel comfortable.
Facilitators shared stories of their own experiences with kindness or their memories of being fifth graders. Each story serves a purpose, Niewinski said, like trying to show the kids that sometimes our actions are hurtful — even if we don’t recognize it.
More than two dozen volunteers came out to act as small-group leaders — “more than we expected,” Niewinski said. The group consisted of teachers, Fremont High School students and Midland University students.
In small groups, volunteers led discussions based on open-ended questions: what kind of unkind acts do you see happening at school and how do they make you feel? What are some of the ways we can show kindness to others? Kids were also invited to do “hero role play,” acting out how they would do kindness, even when facing unkind actions.
There were also opportunities for self-reflection, where the kids could share how they would be kinder at Johnson Crossing, share an apology for an unkind act and thank somebody who’s helped them.
“The students really did a nice job with it and shared their information with other students,” said Johnson Crossing’s sixth-grade counselor Kim Bottorff.
Small group leaders also enjoyed the program. Fremont High School students Kennedy Jones, Jacob Friedrich and Juanita Mendoza told the Tribune that they felt like it made an impact on the kids.
“By the end, they kind of just realized that kindness isn’t some superpower, it’s just a thing that you do,” Jones said. “It’s not hard and it doesn’t cost anything. They just all went up there to share how they’re going to be kinder in the future.”
Friedrich noted that the lunch break provided kids and small group leaders “unrestricted conversation” that allowed them to create close bonds.
And Mendoza got to see the kids practicing kindness up close. She told her small group about how, in high school, friendships can get more complicated — “you lose friends and you gain some friends,” she said. Their response stuck with her.
“They told me, ‘hey, now we’re your friends. You gained some friends.’”
Fifth grade counselor Gretchen Golladay noted that Johnson Crossing is hoping to bring the program back in the future and would like to see expansion into Youth Frontiers’ other retreats. The “courage” retreat, for instance, is offered to seventh and eighth graders, while the “respect” retreat goes into high school.
Bottorff noted that students are often engaged in character lessons while in school, with an emphasis on the importance of kindness.
“I think it’s nice that they see other people coming from outside of our community and supporting what we’ve been teaching,” she said.
Johnson Crossing Principal Brent Harrill hoped the retreat would help focus kids’ energy onto positive action.
“The most important piece in bullying prevention is a strong and positive school culture and that is what we work hard to provide for our students at Johnson Crossing each day,” he said. “Our hope is that the result of this retreat is that we help give our students even more tools to move from “we should” to “I will” in terms of acting with intentional kindness towards others at all times.”