VUHS students promote acceptance, diversity at annual event

VERGENNES — Vergennes Union High School students Siobhan Eagan and Sarah Rathbun had a message for their peers when they took to the podium at the school’s annual Peace One Day celebration held Thursday.
Eagan and Rathbun, two of many speakers addressing staff members and many guests at an all-school assembly, sounded one of the day’s central themes: They asked students, in Eagan’s words, to fight the problem around the country of students being “subject to bullying and harassment for reasons such as their sexual orientation, gender, or who they chose to love.”
Eagan, a sophomore, said students should not stand idly by and watch that behavior.
“As peers and classmates we need to be each others’ allies,” she said. “We all have power to make our schools, community, and world a better place.”
Rathbun, a junior, added the current climate in the nation makes that point even more important.
“In a time when there is so much hate surfacing in this country we need to stand together,” she said. “We must be the people to say yes to peace.”
All were gathered to celebrate the United Nations International Day of Peace and listen to speakers urge them — in student organizer Nora Hatch’s words —“to take action towards peace by accepting and honoring the differences in each of us.”
The event, which was held on the VUHS baseball field, was also filled with music, dance, art, pie and ice cream, and a collection for hurricane relief — an effort boosted by a surprise $1,000 donation from the visiting Northlands Job Corps Student Government Association, a gift that prompted a standing ovation.
The VUHS student Peace One Day Committee organized the event, which Hatch, fellow senior Kaitlyn Brace (who designed the event’s traditional annual banner), and sophomore Kai Williams emceed.
Williams spoke first, after students had sampled dessert, including donated Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and baked goods for sale to benefit hurricane relief. Peace One Day T-shirts designed by seniors Nora Deming and Erin Lawrence were sold for the same cause.
“Our main theme is accepting and honoring diversity,” Williams said. “Through song, dance, and words we have come together at VUHS to listen and participate with those among us who believe in peace.”
After Brace recognized sophomore Emma Beauchemin for designing the event’s annual pin, sophomores Leah Croke and Adrian  Chamberlain announced the event would be dedicated to longtime VUHS staff member Laurie Stedman.
Croke said Stedman created peace among students, “every minute, possibly every second.”
Chamberlain credited Stedman for her consistent presence.
“She’s always there when you need help,” he said.
Speakers, including students and guest Kathryn Blume, a writer, performer and environmental activist, emphasized the benefits and the effort required to strive for peace.
“I’m going to be reiterating a lot of what has been said today, but it needs to be said,” Blume said. “Peace is work … Peace is a commitment.”
Blume urged all to stop judging themselves.
“It’s hard to be kind and loving and compassionate and peaceful to everyone else if you’re at war with yourself,” she said.
Blume said the practice of “othering” people made little sense, noting that people no matter where they are from or what they look like are between 99.5 and 99.9 genetically the same.
Perceived racial differences “are about as important as different colored T-shirts,” Blume said. “Race isn’t real.”
Junior Sepehr Belar, a native of Iran, said VUHS has embraced him. He lives in Middlebury and is a fire cadet there, but commutes to VUHS, which he praised as “a place where peace starts.”
“I choose to come up from Middlebury every day to go to school here because I feel very comfortable here at VUHS,” he said. “I wish that the Commodore community represented all of America. America is great in so many ways, but we have to keep working hard to make America tolerant and kind.”
Senior Mason Charlebois spoke about the positive impact of the 2016 VUHS Peace One Day.
“I see a different group of people than I saw 365 days ago. Sitting in front of me is a group of people who are change-makers,” he said.
Charlebois closed on a hopeful note.
“For peace to occur, we must think big, not small. We can live in a world where everyone, regardless of their race, religion, disability or sexual orientation can not only survive, but thrive as well,” he said. “If we don’t allow others to divide us, and stand together as a united people working towards a peaceful world, great things will happen. I know they can happen.”
Also on or near the podium:
• Sophomore Marlie Hunt read her poem, “Mother Earth.”
• Sophomore Addy, 8th-grader Olivia andVergennes Union Elementary School student Eleanor Brooks sang “We are Here,” by Alicia Keys, with their father, Ferrisburgh Central School teacher Josh Brooks.
• VUES 6th-graders Emerson Rice and Alaina LeBeau spoke.
• Middle-school students Payton Whitehouse and Scott Potala danced, as did and high school students Maddie Smith, Ashley Cray, and Caitlyn Walsh.
• Teachers Chris Wyckoff and Sue O’Daniel, Ghanian guest musician Koblavi, and the Commodore singers performed Wyckoff’s “Peace One Day Anthem” and the Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
• Ferrisburgh Fire Cadet and student Tucker Dike; VUHS alumni, University of Vermont Students and Vermont National Guard ROTC members K.C. Ambrose and Josh Sickles; and Belar led a moment of silence to honor rescue workers and members of the armed services.
• Senior Gwen Brownell spoke of the importance of learning world languages, and sophomore Robbie Bicknell and Rathbun talked about the school’s German exchange program.
• Northlands student Jubilee Thorburn sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
• Student Dan Beach filmed the event with a drone.
• Teacher Sean Nary and middle-schooler Mykenzie Duffy played guitar and sang, respectively, while students formed a Conga line to cap the celebration.
Peace One Day at VUHS takes its roots from a documentary film by that name. Jeremy Gilley, in 2001, had helped persuade the U.N. to declare Sept. 21 as an annual International Day of Peace in the hope that all conflicts would declare a one-day ceasefire. Many ceasefires have been honored, allowing humanitarian goods to be delivered and vaccines to be administered.
VUHS staff members Kristine Kirkaldy, Shorey, Glenn Story and Judy Wiger in early September 2005 showed Gilley’s film to a cultural awareness club. The students then requested an all-school assembly to celebrate the peace day, and it has become an annual student-driven tradition.
And Hatch announced that Thursday’s 13th will not be its last.
“Last spring, I wrote a grant for the Rowland Foundation which we were awarded,” Hatch said. “This grant is for continuing the message our annual Peace One Day event generates to take action towards peace by accepting and honoring the differences in each of us.”

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