Modesto High Day of Respect opens eyes, offers healing

naustin@modbee.comFebruary 11, 2014 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin
    E-mail: naustin@modbee.com

The Day of Respect brought moments of reflection, shivers of recognition and a sense of living lucky to Modesto High students who heard stories of survivors.

This 15th year of the program included 77 speakers who have faced adversity. In 15-minute segments throughout the school day Tuesday, they shared their circumstances and the wisdom gained.

Speakers ranged from Japanese internment camp detainees to adults with disabilities to people who grew up abused, bullied or homeless. Court Commissioner Lynne Meredith spoke about believing as a girl that she had only three career choices: movie star, nurse or stewardess. Another speaker told of surviving what he described as police brutality.

From student letters after past Days of Respect, Sharon Froba said she sees the impact the event has had on individuals. “Attitude is a hard nut to crack, but behavior changes,” said Froba, one of the day’s founders. The goal of helping students drove creation of the Day of Respect, but its effect reaches beyond the listeners, she said. “We never thought speakers’ lives would change,” Froba said, but many say finally telling their secrets and talking about the pain is therapeutic.

Senior Julian Rodriguez said he sees it. “I think they get a sense of relief, to tell their stories and get it out there,” he said. For his friends, the day is eye-opening. “They get a sense of respect. They’ve never seen anyone go through a hardship,” Julian said.

“We learn the effect that judgment has on others, the role that respect has in society. We see a different way to view the world,” senior Samantha Chan said. She is president of the Human Relations Club that helps put on the day.

“There’s a new outlook on the struggles people in the world are going through right now,” said sophomore Belen Lopez, club co-vice president. “As students, we learn there are problems in the world, but by hearing the stories of people in your community, it hits closer to home.”

A speaker from the National Alliance on Mental Illness told students in Alyn Brereton’s psychology class that one in five teenagers has a mental illness and fewer than half of them will get treatment. “A lot of times, people with mental illness don’t get help, and that’s because of the stigma,” Rhonda Allen said. Chemical imbalances in the brain cause mental illness, she said. “You don’t get it because you deserve it,” Allen added, or catch it from others. “Just like diabetes, it needs to be treated.”

Former Day of Respect student helper Jasmine Martinez returned as a speaker after graduating. She came out as a lesbian at 14, which was accepted by classmates but not her family. Martinez’s girlfriend caused “a lot of drama,” especially with her mother, she said. Gathering information for her Day of Respect talk, Martinez said she realized, “My mother said she was scared how people would judge me – but her as well.”

A woman who escaped sexual abuse at home by living on the streets of New York City talked about how she got by, sleeping in the back pews of her church, losing herself in library books and finding unlocked cars to hide out in at night. Prostitutes let her sleep in a corner of a room. A pimp saw her safely to the train to school. “The people who protected me were street people,” Maureen Munroe said. At 18, pregnant by rape, she met and married her husband of nearly 50 years.

Now the great-grandmother of eight, Munroe said what she went through as a child gave her the stamina to survive later challenges. “We all have stories and we do not know what those stories are,” she told students. “People are not to be taken at face value.”

After her talk, Munroe said teachers and students have said her story “opened the doors” for teens to talk about being abused and ask for help. “I really think it makes a difference – I hope so, I bet my day on it,” she said with a grin.

Sitting in Munroe’s audience, senior Jacinda Leng said what she took away from her story “was not to judge others, to respect them.”

“To be grateful, because sometimes you don’t get what you want,” said freshman Mariana Cisneros, sitting next to her.

The spectrum of speakers brought one key thing home, said sophomore Kelsea Stephens. “It’s like an understanding of how different people went through life. Everybody deals with everything differently,” she said. The value for teens with problems, Kelsea said, “is they see (speakers) survived it and so can I.”

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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