In the small gym at Corona del Sol High School, 60 students gathered for one reason: to learn tolerance from one another.
The occasion is known as Awareness Day, a bi-annual event organized by the school’s Unity Club to raise awareness of prejudices, self-image, gender issues and teen suicide.
For the past 14 years, generations of students have gathered here for the same reason, and have left more accepting of one another. It known as a place for students from all backgrounds to come and feel encouraged, to share their thoughts and feelings. It’s a place where judgment is not an option.
It’s the vision of high school seldom represented on television and in the movies.
Even though Awareness Day has a rich past, Corona biology teacher and Unity Club founder Jan O’Malley sees it as more relevant than ever.
“Teen problems seem to have increased due to family issues, socioeconomic issues, and the change in the U.S. as a whole,” she says. “Some of our adult leaders have not been very good role models for our youth. I want Corona to be a safe and understanding community, and that is why we continue to have these days.”
Others seem to feel this way too.
On Jan. 16, Unity leaders Lani Redmond and Mia Khan both won Tempe’s Martin Luther King Diversity Award for their work with the program. Jan O’Malley also accepted a large grant for the program at the ceremony.
Awareness Day is based around a series of skits performed by the Unity leaders, a group of students who meet every week of the school year to prepare for events like this. Each skit focuses on a different topic of discussion such as gender stereotyping, bullying, suicide and one called “the 5 levels,” a demonstration of how simple hatred can lead to genocide.
Following each of the skits, the students, known here as “delegates,” are split into groups to discuss, something they called “processing.” Unity leaders bring up questions designed to provoke thought and encourage discussion among delegates.
However, opening up is something Unity leader Preslie Hirsch says is not a problem for most. “Many kids have a lot of baggage they didn’t know they were holding,” she says. “They don’t have the resources they need to express themselves, or have family and friends to talk about these subjects. Here we give them an outlet.”
“Students are opinionated on more things than we think,” she says. “This is a really great platform to express opinions, topics that might be inappropriate to discuss in a classroom, or things people are afraid they may get judged for. We give them an environment to express this.”
Hirsch, Corona senior and four-year veteran of Awareness Day, says the program has sometimes struggled with support from some of the faculty and community. But she says the arrival of new principal Brent Brown could act as a new beginning for the program.
“Awareness Day used to be mandatory for all freshmen, so we would put it on five to six times a year,” she says.
“Now we are down to two a year. Our new principal is very supportive of the program, and we’re hoping it will be mandatory again. It’s just something that is beneficial to the school as a whole.”
Upon her retirement in May 2013, O’Malley will be vacating the position of Unity Club adviser. Interest in the position has been minimal, she says, but she hopes that someone with a passion for Corona’s youth will step up to continue the program and take it to new heights.
“I am hoping that someone will at least continue sponsoring the Unity Club, where kids can gather and discuss the same issues that are presented at Awareness Day,” she says.
“My 15 years with the program working with such awesome kids who feel as passionate about this program as I do, is rewarding beyond anything else I have done.”