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Girls for Change helps middle-schoolers feel included

Godwin Heights — Benches near the cafeteria at Godwin Heights Middle School were installed as places where students could relax and talk with friends.

But Girls for Change members thought the blue and gold benches, while the school colors, were not particularly welcoming. So when the opportunity came to repaint the benches with encouraging messages and symbols, the group went into action.

A little more than two weeks later, the benches sport new color palettes of pink, blue, yellow and orange with messages about love, mental health, and leadership.

“I especially like the mental health one,” said seventh-grader Amharia Dillard. The blue and white bench has the words “Rest Here” with a variety of symbols to remind students of the importance of self-care.

“I think sometimes the mental health of students is not always recognized by teachers and parents,” Amharia said. “We do have feelings. We have these feelings of trying to be good and the need to have good grades. I hope this bench helps to remind people that students have mental health needs and for the students that they should take time to care for themselves.”

Artist Jamari Taylor with seventh-grader Iranzi Tumukunde

Student Voice

Girls for Change is a social justice group started in 2019 by KSSN Community School Coordinator Margie Muñoz. 

“It is all student-led,” said adviser Miriam Kluitenberg, KSSN community school coordinator at the middle school. “It is all based on what the students are passionate about and how they can incorporate those passions in the school.”

Funded by a grant through Michigan Women Forward, girls in grades six to eight can sign up at the beginning of the school year. Currently, about 10 girls participate in the program, which encourages them to do projects throughout the school year.

“You feel included and those in the group make certain that you are included,” said seventh-grader Iranzi Tumukunde. “Most students don’t always feel welcomed. For girls, they are often told that they can’t do this or try that but with Girls for Change, we know we can do anything that anyone else can do.”

Becoming Change Makers

Last year, Girls for Change partnered with local artist Jamari Taylor to create a mural for the middle school, in the same hallway as the benches. Taylor heads a foundation that focuses on uplifting and inspiring others through art.

Inspired by causes that the girls care about, the mural represents women who are leaders in fighting for racial justice, immigration rights and LGBTQ+ rights. “I met with the girls, we started brainstorming and through that process developed the mural,” Taylor said.

‘For girls, they are often told that they can’t do this or try that but … we know we can do anything that anyone else can do.’

–seventh-grader Iranzi Tumukunde

She taught the students about different painting techniques, then they worked together to create “The Change Maker’s Sanctuary.”

After the success of the mural project, Girls for Change members were encouraged to do another collaborative project this year with Taylor. 

Assistant Principal Veola Nelson had the perfect suggestion: she thought the three buddy benches located near the school’s cafeteria could use a fresh look. A fourth bench was added, with the group deciding on a theme of inclusivity.

Students from the Girls For Change program work on the buddy benches (Courtesy)

Unique, ‘like the students here’

On Feb. 24, middle school students and staff met in the cafeteria after school for the unveiling of the benches. 

A white and pink bench, “Love is Love,” includes messages about loving yourself and others; the blue “Rest Here” features symbols encouraging students to take care of their mental health, and an orange and yellow bench, “Leaders in Our Lives,” features positive role models such as family, parents, teachers and students.

The metal bench, titled “We Are One” includes a mural of different women, a design the girls wanted to include, Taylor said.

“I like them because they each have their own unique story,” said eighth-grader Kayla VanValkenburg. “They feel unique, like the students here.”

Before starting the ‘Love is Love’ bench, artist Jamari Taylor gets the artwork centered (Courtesy)
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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


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