Inspired by Loren Eiseley's poem "Starfish," fourth-grade students from around Perham each were given a starfish to remind them that one small act of kindness can make all the difference to someone else or even to themselves.

Afterward, the Perham High School gym lights lowered as the students gathered in a circle of gratitude. The participants could enter the middle of the circle one at a time, place a pebble in the bowl, and share a word of kindness. Some students apologized for things that they had done or for things that they had failed to do, while others shared something kind about another.

The activities Tuesday, Nov. 26, were part of the first Compassion in Action event, a two-part event for Perham-area elementary schools. Fourth-grade students from Heart of the Lakes Elementary, St. Henry's Area School and St. Paul's Lutheran School participated, with a half-day in the fall and another half day taking place in the spring.

The goal of the event is to help prepare fourth-graders for the transition into middle school.

The event was a "great start in trying to cultivate and build relationships in our building," said Liz Johnson, principal at Heart of the Lakes Elementary. "Helping students know that they have ownership in their relationships and in our building."

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Small group having fun forming a human pyramid as a community building activity.
Small group having fun forming a human pyramid as a community building activity. RosaLin Alcoser

The event was organized by Johnson, along with Courtney Rooney, a counselor from Lakeland Mental Health Center, and Ehren Zimmerman, principal of Perham High School. With the help of Jeff Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher at Heart of the Lakes, who has participated in 19 similar events at Lincoln Elementary in Fargo, N.D.

The event focused on helping students understand self-awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision-making, self-management and social awareness. Teaching them how to be kind, compassionate, know when to ask for help, and know how to care about themselves and others in their community.

With help from Perham High juniors, from the junior leadership group, and seniors from the National Honor Society, the fourth-graders broke into small groups for empathy and compassion-building activities. The high school volunteers lead the groups and classes were separated so that they would meet and open up to new people.

Many of the kids were shy at the begin of the morning and started to warm up as the morning progressed according to Donna Guck, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Henry. She and the other teachers took a step back from the groups to encourage the kids to open up to each other and their high school leaders in ways that they would not if their teachers were leading the discussion.

Students from Perham area elementary schools and high school volunteers take part in a compassion building exercise.
Students from Perham area elementary schools and high school volunteers take part in a compassion building exercise.RosaLin Alcoser

In the classroom, the students have been learning about empathy, compassion and respect. They are also learning that this means that you must have these things not only for others but also for yourself. Tracy Hein, the Positive Behavior Interiors and Support (PBIS) coach at Perham-Dent Public Schools, said that compassion and empathy go hand-in-hand.

While elementary students are learning about compassion, the high school students are learning about leadership. Zimmerman said that all of the high school students have to complete community service hours, and that many of Tuesday's volunteers were completing extra hours helping to build community, closing the age gap with the younger students looking up to them. The event also gave these high school students a practical application of the leadership skills that they have been learning.

After the circle of gratitude broke up, the students danced to "This Is Me" from "The Greatest Showmen" before heading off to lunch with their groups, and then recess on the field with their high school leaders.