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Kindness campaign leaders heading to Harvard

BY GENEVIEVE POSTLETHWAIT gpostlethwait@paducahsun.com

Three years into their anti-bullying efforts, Susan and Morgan Guess will head to Harvard University next week to strengthen their campaign of kindness and bring what they learn back to Paducah.

In Boston, the mother-daughter duo will meet with leaders of Harvard's Making Caring Common Project (MCC), which helps educators, parents and communities raise children who are caring, respectful and responsible toward others.

One leader they will meet, MCC Co-Director Richard Weissbourd, was part of a Harvard Graduate School of Education team that surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students and found that 80 percent of students surveyed prioritized high achievement over caring for others.

The study suggested that teens value achievement more than caring, in large part because they think their parents do. The Guesses' mission, much in line with that of MCC, is to flip those values and make kindness a top priority among teens and parents alike. Susan said she and her daughter are looking forward to learning from the best in Boston and using what they learn to build on their efforts back home.

"We get calls almost every day from someone who is experiencing bullying," Susan said. "That keeps us going, because we know there are many more who still suffer in silence."

The Guesses started an anti-bullying foundation three years ago after Susan realized Morgan was being bullied at school. Susan had to find out on her own, she said, because Morgan wouldn't speak up.

Their initial focus was on helping Morgan build her confidence and find her voice. Now, Susan says it's not about them at all, but rather about sharing their story with others who are still too afraid to tell their own.

In years following, they brought director Lee Hirsch to Paducah for a special screening of his documentary, Bully. They hosted author and activist Jodee Blanco, who spoke to 6,000 kids in grades 4-12 in McCracken County Schools. They are now in the process of convincing Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear to appoint a statewide anti-bullying task force.

This school year, the Guesses are shifting their message from anti-bullying to pro-kindness and hope their Boston trip will provide fresh ideas for working with local educators and students to promote caring and kindness. They've already booked two speakers. Missy Jenkins Smith will speak at several local schools Aug. 15, and Stand for the Silent founder Kirk Smalley will speak Jan. 30. They are also working with the newly formed Paducah Kindness Council to develop new ways to increase kindness and confidence in schools, on social media  and throughout the community.

"Your voice does matter, no matter your age," Susan said. "And I think it's the kids in our community who have the power to make the biggest change."

Contact Genevieve Postlethwait, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or at gpostlethwait@paducahsun.com.

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