In June 2000 the Mepham H.S. Alumni Association initiated two Diversity Awards, of $500 each, to "seniors who have contributed most to the understanding and acceptance of diversity in the school." In keeping with those awards we here reprint an article from Bellmore Life, August 23, 2000.
Mepham High School -- Fighting Intolerance Every Day
by, Loretta Chao
Walking into Mepham High School, you are greeted with a colorfully decorated hallway. Looking closer, however, you will notice a humble bulletin board neatly set up to greet visitors as well. At the center of the board is a pledge that boldly begins, "I pledge from this day onward to interrupt prejudice and to stop those who, because of hate, would hurt, harass, or violate the civil rights of anyone..."
A new movement has swept through the Bellmore-Merrick CHSD in response to the everyday pressures of intolerance. "Hardly a day goes by when one can't pick up a newspaper and find an example of the lack of tolerance," stated John Didden, the principal of W.C. Mepham High School. To counteract it, the school has not one, but three organizations called pro-tolerance groups.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the population of minorities on Long Island has grown four percent in the past 10 years. Because of this increase, a lack of tolerance could cause problems both in our communities and in our schools that may need to be counteracted.
For Mepham, it all started six years ago with the Culture Club. In the 1999-2000 school year, two new tolerance groups emerged in the Mepham H.S. community, called A World of Difference and the Gay Straight Alliance. Grand Avenue Middle School is now approaching its second year with the World of Difference program as well. Calhoun, similarly, has a club called Student Action that deals with tolerance.
There are very different views of the potential of these programs, however. Some see a bright future. Rochelle Lee of Mepham High School says that A World of Difference is a good program, "You could really see the difference in the people that participated," she said.
Mr. Didden feels that there is a lot more room for development, since the clubs are in their earliest stages. "[We] want to achieve tolerance and understanding in the school and in the greater community of Bellmore," he stated. "It's not like turning a light on overnight." The principal seemed very enthusiastic about the organizations and their cause.
On the other hand, there are hardships to overcome, as some students pointed out. For instance, in John F. Kennedy High School, Michael Fundora, an entering senior, said that, having a cultural awareness program in his school would "be okay but there isn't enough diversity to make the club."
Other students felt that though the clubs share a good cause, there is little they can do about bigotry and prejudice. "[The clubs] are very limited," said Nicholas Columbo, an entering senior at Mepham, "and they can do very little towards achieving what they want to."
Both Mike and Nicholas agreed in saying that "in high school, image is everything." Mai Cheng, a recent graduate of Mepham and former treasurer of the Culture Club, recalled that the Gay-Straight Alliance had a hard time attracting members in its first year. "People were afraid to join because people would think they Were gay," said Mai.
What, may you ask, do these clubs do exactly? The Mepham Culture Club started out by bringing people of different lifestyles together to celebrate their differences and learn more about each other. According to Mai Cheng, in recent years they have expanded to visiting elementary schools to teach tolerance to younger children, raising money for charities, and coordinating an annual "Culture Club Show" in an assembly for the whole school to watch.
The club, though not around for a long time, has had an impact on the students at Mepham. "The culture club has become one of the basic clubs at Mepham," said Mai. Their annual show has made its way into somewhat of a tradition at the school.
"It's fun," Rochelle Lee said thoughtfully. "It's good to be involved in something and hear different people's conceptions of things." Rochelle was the artist who designed the club's winter holiday mural that was hanging up in the school's main hallway. It presented an opportunity to learn about different holidays such as Kwanzaa, an African winter holiday, she said.
The Culture Club not only taught its members about different cultures. but has paid visits to local elementary schools where the club split into groups to perform skits for the younger children and spread the word about tolerance. During the 1999-2000 school year, the Culture Club raised $100 for the victims of a tragic earthquake in Taiwan.
According to Mr. Didden, the Culture Club is not the only proactive group of its kind at Mepham. A World of Difference, the very program that put the sign on the bulletin board at Mepham is a program that trained a pre-selected group of teens to actively teach their peers to disarm the barriers between cliques.
Mr. Didden stated that though Mepham does not have a problem with disputes over intolerance the World of Difference program is working its way toward "a culture that is motivated by tolerance and understanding." The club's first-year activities included a pledge signing, of all students who were willing, of a promise to accept each other's differences.
The World of Difference program also was able to raise $ 1,100 for charity through their "Stay-Awake-Athon" which had 60 participants. Lewis Sera, Assistant Principal at Mepham, says that the club hopes to expand on activities such as the Stay-Awake-Athon. Their plans for the coming school year also include a Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and plans for a "Lovers of..." Day. It is A World of Difference's hope that this day will bring people together who do not normally interact with each other.
The participants in A World of Difference were selected through a ballot vote process in which Mepham students and staff were asked to recommend each other. These students went through an extensive training program and presented to each of Mepham's social studies classes.
Mepham is not the only school in the district to have A World of Difference program. Grand Avenue Middle School started the program last year as well, according to Fino Celano, the school's principal. Coincidentally, the middle school program acts almost parallel to the program at Mepham.
The Gay-Straight Alliance is a club at Mepham that seeks tolerance for all peoples, and asks that they do not have biases against students who have different sexual preferences. The advisors,of the club for the following year will be Robert Walsh, a math teacher at Mepham, and Diane Parker, a guidance counselor.
Because these clubs have such similar interests, representatives from all three plan joint meetings for the coming year. "[They] show kids that it's all right to be different, because everyone is different in their own way." said Samantha Dias, the Culture Club's new treasurer.
One of the first activities they plan to do together is coordinating a workshop at the Human Awareness conference that is held annually at Hofstra University. The object of the workshop will be to help other schools get started in forming their own tolerance groups.
"[These] groups are very valuable to any community because they emphasize the need to accept and appreciate people who are different, and they identify the different stereotypes and discrimination that teens suffer from," said Samantha,
"Yes," states Rochelle, [the clubs] should be inputted into a lot of other schools." Said Mai Cheng in Agreement, "It's, a club that every school should have the privilege to have."