E. Wenatchee school project photographs inner fears

EAST WENATCHEE — Picture this: Your innermost fear or insecurity is written boldly on your body — forehead, chest, stomach, leg — for all the world to see.

“Afraid.”

“Excluded.”

“Misunderstood.”

“Betrayed.”

Print it big with a washable marker. Now snap a photo, post it on the Web and watch one of your most intimate secrets go global.

Scary, eh? Yet more than 200 students at Eastmont High School have done just that as part of a senior project designed to boost self-esteem by facing fears, trumping insecurities and showing that personal struggle is part of everyone’s life.

Keisha Engley, Aubryann McClune and Natalie Merrill — the three seniors spearheading the EHS Self-Worth Project — so far have gathered more than 220 photos of participating students towards a goal of 1,000 from schools in the Eastmont district.

The pictures — many of them powerful statements of youthful angst and concerns — have been posted on a blog, Facebook and in YouTube videos. The ultimate goal, said organizers, is a wall-sized mural at Eastmont High School that displays every photo, every fear and secret, as part of a larger whole.

“Students have really opened up to us,” said McClune, 17, “and told us stuff they’ve never told anyone before. Choosing the words, writing on their bodies, taking the photo — it’s a series of big steps, huge steps, particularly for someone who didn’t know how to talk about what’s inside. They’ve said to the whole world, ‘Here I am.’”

Time and again, said Engley, the project team has heard stories of grief, depression, sadness and frustration. “We see happy people on the outside, but they’re suffering on the inside. Part of this project is that we want kids to know they don’t have to do it alone.”

Said Merrill, “We want them to understand that regardless of who they are and what they’re feeling, they’re appreciated and loved. That right here at this school, there’s understanding and support.”

The three young women were quick to point out that they’re not counselors. Kids who need real help are directed immediately to school advisers, counselors or psychologists.

But the trio, who grew up together in East Wenatchee, said they’ve always leaned toward helping others and offering support to friends and family. All three have attended sessions of Natural Helpers, a peer-to-peer program that trains teens to listen to friends, help identify problems and encourage, if needed, professional guidance or counseling.

Plus, after graduation the three said they’re headed toward “helping professions” or social services — Engley possibly as a speech therapist; McClune and Merrill as teachers or educators, maybe even in developing countries.

The inclination to make a difference led the three Eastmont teens to the original Self-Worth Project begun by a California high school student. “We could see this was an important project,” said Engley, “and thought something like this could work here, too.”

Of course, there was suspicion and hesitation on the part of students and school administrators. “At first, we had to let everyone know exactly what we were doing,” said McClune. “We talked with students, gave a presentation to teachers and distributed what seemed like a million fliers. We had fliers everywhere.”

Slowly, kids caught on. And after the first photos were posted online — once the project’s intent and methods were understood — students began to volunteer to literally wear their feelings for all to see.

“Beauty.”

“Loved.”

“Alone.”

“Ugly.”

And with each student’s participation, the project’s effects have been personally dramatic, said the three seniors.

“We could see these weren’t just photos of kids,” said Merrill, “but a representation of an individual who has a full life and a deep, deep story.”

Added McClune, “Working on the project helped change our own self worth. Seeing the strength inside these students was inspirational — for our school and for ourselves.”

Said Engley, “What we’ve learned is summed up in our project’s slogan. `You are special. You are important. You are never alone.”’

She paused a second. “And this last line is my favorite part: `You are loved.’ Never forget you are loved.”

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