Pike County native Kaylee Ray has always been eager to make a difference in her community. As she started eighth-grade at Valley Elementary School, GEAR UP student leadership coordinator Missy Spangler offered her the perfect project to do that – an initiative to bridge the gap between all students and create a sense of belonging for everyone called Building the Bridge of Belonging.
“Sometimes, school is the only safe place you’ve got,” said Spangler, who has lived her entire life in nearby Letcher County and has a passion to help her community thrive. Having noticed that not all students were participating in GEAR UP programs, she wanted to offer additional opportunities and having Ray assume a leadership role was a great chance to do that.
Ray’s efforts started with reading to elementary school students in the special education classroom, but soon students across the district were “paying it forward.” Shelby Valley high schoolers handed out homemade brownies on Valentine’s Day. Second graders wrote positive affirmations to put on the lockers of older students. Spangler and Ray realized that the bridges they built reached farther than they envisioned, allowing K-12 students to feel comfortable in their schools.
The two had the chance to talk about their efforts at the national Youth Leadership Summit (YLS) in San Francisco in July.
YLS, which takes place during the National Council for Community and Education Partners (NCCEP) conference, helps GEAR UP students identify their strengths as a leader and teaches them how to capitalize on those strengths to become a better leader in their community. Not only was Ray able to take part in these workshops, but Spangler was able attend workshops designed specifically for her role as well.
While attending the conference, Spangler and Ray set up a booth where they shared information about Building the Bridge of Belonging with attendees. They also talked about the initiative in an official presentation attended by thousands of people. Ray played such an important role that Spangler wanted her to be seen as her partner and not just a student helper. She made sure Ray prepared and had equal speaking parts during their presentation. Spangler wanted everyone to see just how much of an impact Ray had with this initiative and for her to gain the experience of speaking in front of a large audience.
Reflecting, Spangler and Ray agreed the month-long preparation for staffing the booth and giving the presentation was time well spent. Not only was the word spread nationally about their initiative, but the opportunity to build on their own leadership skills while bonding with other GEAR UP students and staff was fulfilling.
“If I could take back one thing [from the conference], it would be the amount of energy and support everyone had in the room,” Ray said.
Another take away for Ray was from a workshop she attended about being an equity warrior. The word resiliency stuck with her all the way back to Kentucky as it reflected her own leadership style. When Spangler heard Ray talk about this, she could not think of a better word to describe her either.
“Kaylee is a natural born leader,” Spangler said, noting Ray’s growth over the last year. “I’m looking forward to the leadership opportunities she will pursue over her next four years of high school,” she added.
In the future, Spangler plans to continue to help bridge the equality gap for all her students. She hopes to take more students to future NCCEP conferences to offer them the opportunity Ray had to grow as a student leader, both personally and in her community.
Ray is already eager to find ways to make an impact as a freshman at Shelby Valley High School. Even though she will be one of the youngest among her new peers, she is resilient and ready to continue making a difference in her community.