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Hamlin students make their VOICE heard

A group of eighth-grade students from Hamlin Middle School poured their hearts out last week as part of their Student VOICE projects. 

The students have been practicing their presentations for months, and on Friday, they finally got to deliver their speeches to their intended audience: fellow students.

Between 30 and 40 students voluntarily sign up for the VOICE program each year, which aims to help students become comfortable giving speeches in a classroom setting. It also provides a way for students to talk about their struggles in a safe place. 

VOICE stands for Voicing Opinions to Initiate Change Everywhere.

Cynthia Nagao, the Family Resource Coordinator at Hamlin and leader of the school’s VOICE program said the students are asked to talk about a challenge or obstacle they’ve faced so far in life and the lessons they’ve learned from the challenges.

Each speech lasts between three and five minutes, and students work to not only describe their struggles, but also to speak to their audience in an engaging way with eye contact, emphasis on the correct words and pauses at appropriate times.

Students detailed traumatic events such as being sexually abused and family drug use. They spoke of their own self-harm, struggles with anxiety, depression and bullying. Some whose first language is Spanish offered details of how they walked to the U.S.- Mexico border and eventually gained asylum in the United States. They spoke of how they lost family members to gang violence and drugs along the way.

The topics are intense, but Nagao, along with the students, say speaking about such life experiences make them less heavy.

“I think it’s therapeutic and healing for students,” Nagao said. “It’s also helpful for the audience that gets to listen. It inspires hope and empathy.”

Students in the group presented their final speeches to other groups of Hamlin students Friday. As the students rehearsed Thursday, Nagao offered words of encouragement and pointers on how to improve the student testimonies.

“Your volume is great and you’re clear when you speak,” she said to one student.

“You command attention with your voice,” she said to another.

Before the students concluded their practice session, Nagao reminded them to speak loudly, slow down and to make eye contact. She also advised them not to wear anything that would be distracting.

“We want people to listen to what you’re saying,” she said. “If you’re wearing something that’s distracting, it takes attention away from what you’re saying.”

Student VOICE has taken place at Hamlin since 2010 after the district worked to adopt the program as part of its equity cadre. The program was initially created for district staff to hear from students about their life experiences.

“It gives students a voice and gives others an awareness of what they’ve been through,” Nagao said. “It helps us as a district to focus on equity and diversity.”

Nagao also said the program allows for students who may not already be friends to get to know each other.

“They gain a higher respect for one another,” she said.

Students in the group agreed.

“Telling our story helps younger people to know that they’re not the only ones experiencing something,” said Gerry Cornejo-Franco. “That there are other students here, at this school, who may be going through something similar.”

At the conclusion of each of their speeches, the students offered some words of advice – nearly all of the offered similar mesages: reach out, get help, don’t suffer in silence, you’re not alone.

VOICE group