Three staff from COVID safety team wearing masks and waving

The 18th annual Peace Builder Awards, organized by the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center, honored a diverse group of peace builders from around our community in a variety of categories. Two Bellingham Public Schools (BPS) staff were recognized for their efforts responding to COVID-19 while several of our students won awards for poetry.

BPS staff Jenny Lawrence and Nyla Thursday served on the COVID Response Team, launched in March 2020. Initially, they worked on the top priorities of food support and child care: Thursday helped create backbone systems to support the feeding of our students and Lawrence jumped in to ensure free child care would be available to first responders.

Described as “active, inquisitive, and energized” by their nominator, Jessica Sankey, executive director of operations, they were both “bold enough to try on new roles and humble enough to react to ever-shifting requirements and regulations.”

They helped develop return-to-school protocols for everything, from how to help kids line up, to safe school meals and cafeterias, to playground guidelines. The relentlessness of the work was equaled only by their dedication to it — Thursday measured every classroom and learning space to determine how many people could be accommodated with social distancing. Lawrence visited as many as seven schools in a day, stopping by for a chat and a check-in — all part of a very intentional strategy to reassure our staff.

Much of the “peace building” of their work was to continue to build relationships no matter the circumstances or challenges. The pair willingly shared resources and plans to support fellow districts in preparing to welcome their students back to their schools and initiated a daily call with fellow Whatcom County school districts and the health department.

“In the hardest days of the pandemic, fear drove discord,” said Sankey. “Ultimately, everyone wanted assurance that we would be safe returning to schools, and ultimately, that was a guarantee no one could give. Jenny and Nyla understood the power of fear and they never tried to reason anyone out of their fear. They listened with empathy, shared their considerable knowledge humbly, and guided their colleagues to find consistent and collaborative solutions that worked for them.”

Lawrence and Thursday were key to BPS’ ability to offer immediate availability of vaccine clinics for staff following the governor’s approval. They had prepared months in advance, seeking out and building relationships with pharmacies and health systems to ensure access to vaccines for staff. Later, these partnerships and expertise supported clinics for all students 12-18 year of age. Because of their work, nearly 3,000 people received COVID vaccines, offsite and onsite, in spring 2021.

“What stood out about the COVID work last year was the outstanding teamwork and the heart it took from all involved,” said Thursday. “I could not have done any of my work without the collaboration across the county, students, families, and the investment of every staff member. It’s impossible to put into words the level of collaboration it takes to build knowledge and comfort within an unknown landscape.”

Student poets share their pieces

Staff aren’t the only ones building peace. The 2021 winners of the WDRC Youth Peace Poetry Contest included the following BPS students:

  • Silas O., Sehome High School, for the poem “Untitled”
  • Stella S., Happy Valley Elementary School, for the poem “Untitled”
  • Ruby T., Sehome High School, for the poem “I am enough”
  • Madison F., Kulshan Middle School, for the poem “When the silence is quiet”

Each poem was read during the online awards ceremony. The poems will be included in the Chuckanut Reader, a publication of Village Books, and are on display in the reading gallery at Village Books in Fairhaven and are viewable online.

Congrats to these talented and exceptional peace builders!

Watch the full awards ceremony and poetry readings here: https://www.whatcomdrc.org/peace-builder-awards

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