Robinson Barracks Elementary hosts #WhyYouMatter art show

By Bardia KhajenooriFebruary 22, 2023

#WhyYouMatter Robinson Barracks
1 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Members of the Robinson Barracks Elementary community applaud during the opening of the #WhyYouMatter art show on November 16, 2022. (Photo Credit: Bardia Khajenoori) VIEW ORIGINAL
#WhyYouMatter Robinson Barracks
2 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Young visitors prepare #WhyYouMatter statements before their turn at the photo booth during the art show at Robinson Barracks Elementary on November 16, 2022. (Photo Credit: Bardia Khajenoori) VIEW ORIGINAL
#WhyYouMatter Robinson Barracks
3 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Students were eager to pose with their posters at the Robinson Barracks Elementary #WhyYouMatter art show as their parents captured the moment. (Photo Credit: Bardia Khajenoori) VIEW ORIGINAL
#WhyYouMatter Robinson Barracks
4 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – The art show included opportunities for anyone to write their own #WhyYouMatter response in front of a themed backdrop. (Photo Credit: Bardia Khajenoori) VIEW ORIGINAL

The writing was on the walls at Robinson Barracks Elementary School.

But far from being foreboding, the atmosphere buzzed with excitement and pride on Nov. 16 as students, parents, and staff explored hallways lined with hundreds of portraits and personal messages of why each individual member of the school community felt they mattered.

“I really liked the art show — it made me think of a museum,” said RBES fifth grader Christion Habersham, whose own statement referenced his quirkiness and sense of humor.

“It’s everyone’s voices. It shows their personalities, what they are, how they want to live.”

Faculty members drove the point home clad in matching black t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “You Matter” as they served pizza and oversaw a selfie station, writing wall, and other activities set up for the event. One by one, proud parents eagerly positioned their children next to the poster bearing their image to create their own keepsake.

The show was the culmination of a campaign called #WhyYouMatter, which originated in 2017 as a Michigan high school’s response to the tragic losses of three students, including two by suicide, in less than a year. It has since been adopted by dozens of schools worldwide as a way for students to consider their unique qualities and build positive self-image.

Art teacher Maggie Holloway introduced and spearheaded the project at RBES. She first heard about #WhyYouMatter through a conference presentation in the fall of 2021 by the two women who started it.

“When I heard their story, I just had tingles everywhere,” she said, recounting recent personal experiences with anxiety and depression among children at the elementary and middle school levels. “Knowing that’s on the minds of the young kids in our community, it just seemed like [#WhyYouMatter] needed to happen here.”

Holloway mentioned her idea to colleague and RBES school counselor Kristin Abel the following spring. Abel loved the idea and, in turn, brought it to the attention of Principal Lisa Bell. With the enthusiastic support of Bell, fellow staff members and the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association, which provided assistance with materials, the vision came to life.

In addition to the portraits, Holloway and Abel taught lessons on self-worth, and related themes were integrated into work that students would create in Holloway’s art classes.

“It was really interesting, beginning to talk to them about this campaign and why they matter, and having them brainstorm why they thought they mattered, with practice times of writing it down until they found what they wanted to say and had their picture taken,” Abel said.

Holloway photographed each individual holding a small whiteboard with their response in front of a backdrop and later inserted each striking monochrome image into a poster template. Children too young to write for themselves held up a blank whiteboard and had their personal responses superimposed on it during the editing process. Eventually, nearly everyone on campus would participate, including kitchen staff, gardeners, and bulldog mascot Boris.

“The best part was seeing the looks on kids’ faces, seeing their smiles and hearing their thank yous” as the posters were displayed, Holloway said.

Abel felt the overall experience helped teach empathy through exposure to others’ perspectives, and that you aren’t alone when you experience negative feelings.

Fourth grader Ainsley Guinnup agreed, characterizing the initiative as “amazing” and explaining that even some of the youngest children were taking away those insights.

“I think the first graders really started to understand it by realizing that other people matter too,” she said.

While the prompt was the same for all, participants could be creative in how they responded. The result was a diverse array of short and long messages, funny and serious ones, and some which included drawings or poems representing how the respondents saw themselves.

“My experience on this project was remarkable, because it’s not every day you get to reflect on yourself,” said student Arjun Abichal. “It was like the key to unlock the door.”

The eleven-year-old was initially unsure of what to write but settled on creating an acrostic poem of his name with descriptors such as ‘artist’ and ‘respectful.’

“It made me think, ‘Am I all these things? Am I always these things?’ and made me reflect on who I was,” he said.

He added that teachers and administrators’ passion for the project made it clear that they truly believed in it – and in their students.

The level of support was “unbelievable” to Holloway.

“I think I partly wanted the parents to see that their kid is important to each of the teachers here, and that even when they’re not with their mom or dad, they’re in good hands,” she said.


This article was originally published in print in the 1st Quarter 2023 edition of the Stuttgart Citizen magazine.