“You Are Not Alone” fosters campus unity

Three months ago, in hopes of uniting Dougherty’s student body, Dougherty Valley High School Leadership hosted the four-day-long event, Breaking Down the Walls.

Breaking Down the Walls (BDTW) is “an event that focuses on campus unity by recognizing that each student has their own story and that we all are not as different as we may seem,” DVHS Leadership representatives said. “[Its] main objective is to unite through vulnerability and to create a sense of recognition and community between all students.”

During Access and lunch today, DVHS Leadership hosted its first Breaking Down the Walls extension event, You Are Not Alone.

Bringing in two guest speakers, both BDTW participants, You Are Not Alone continued to emphasize the importance of connections and communal support.

Sophomore Breezy Bochenek recounted her experiences with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. She was 10 years-old when she was diagnosed and had to have her leg amputated as a result of her cancer.

Despite the challenges she experienced, she remained resilient:  “Back then, as I thought about life, cancer, and even losing my leg, I realized that I was actually pretty lucky. What we experience in our life can either seem simple or overwhelming. It just depends on the way we think about it … So I made the decisions that I was going to be positive. I couldn’t control the cancer but I could control the impact it had on me. To me it seemed simple: I was alive, so I was going to live.”

Going outside of her comfort zone, Bochenek continues to speak to other children who wanted to “talk with someone who had gone through what they were facing” to “share a message of hope.”

As a result of finding this kind of community, Bochenek discovered mentorship opportunities and created lasting friendships but has unfortunately also witnessed friends that have battled and lost the end stages of cancer at the ages of 10 and 13. To honor them, she promised to “live life to the fullest and to continue to give freely of my time to the people who just need a little extra help and to enjoy life has to offer. And in everything I do, to do it wholeheartedly. I owe that to my friends.”

She left these final thoughts with the audience: embrace challenges; remember, you’re alive, so live and do everything wholeheartedly; don’t be afraid to get outside your comfort zone; and always choose positivity.

Following Bochenek’s speech, English teacher Molly Topf also shared some valuable insight from the perspective of a teacher and adult.

“I feel like our current society has come to value this idea of happiness as being a real indicator of our success,” Topf said. “Yet, most of this beautiful life that we live, even in the best of circumstances, doesn’t lend itself to happiness all the time. And that’s ok. We need to acknowledge that. It’s when we think that struggle is bad or failure is bad that we start to become unhappy.”

She reminded students that “we live in this big beautiful messy world. And the best thing we can do it to accept that, appreciate it and enjoy it.”

Part of appreciating and enjoying life, Topf stated, comes with being meaningfully and deeply connected to others, “where you feel like you know someone and they know you.”

To this end, Topf encouraged everyone to continue to reach out to others and make connections, even “if it feels a little manufactured or awkward.”

After Topf’s speech, the event culminated in an open-mic period, during which students could stand up and give a “shout-out” to someone who they appreciate and who has supported them.

As students shared their testimonies and words of appreciation and gratitude to friends sitting next to them or across the world, former strangers shed tears together and laughter pervaded the Performing Arts Center.

Students who are feeling alone are encouraged to go speak with Mr. Joe Ianora, Dougherty’s Support Counselor, who works with students all day, helping them unburden themselves from the things that overwhelm them.

“Sometimes it is coaching, sometimes counseling. I think most students leave with a feeling of perspective. As in, life is not perfect, but I know how to contend with it better,” Ianora said.

Ianora urges students to always stay connected to friends and come to him if they are ever “struggling with where or how they fit into this world,” noting that “just trying to make a connection helps.”

Now collecting feedback via a Google Forms survey on Dougherty’s first You Are Not Alone event, Leadership hopes to continue to foster campus unity through even more events in the future.