Jaya Joyce, 18, of Coventry, Rhode Island, a senior at Coventry High School, co-founded a club at her school that has helped create a culture of acceptance and inclusion, encouraging everyone in her student body to reach out to fellow students who are lonely, isolated, challenged or bullied. “From a young age, I knew what it was like to feel lonely,” said Jaya, citing painful childhood experiences including bullying at school. Though difficult, those experiences gave her “a passion for helping others, so that no one will ever feel the way I felt in those moments of loneliness,” she said.
Recognizing that there were many in her school who felt that way, Jaya and a couple of friends proposed a program to their principal that they call the “Unified Oakers Program.” To accomplish their goal, they have hosted school-wide assemblies in which students learn about the value of inclusion and pledge to show kindness to those who are different or feel excluded. The club also initiated a bi-monthly social hour for students to make new friends, organized a student-alumni Unified basketball game, and established a Unified volleyball team made up of students both with and without disabilities. In addition, Jaya and her friends raised more than $13,000 for Special Olympics by persuading over 100 students and teachers to take a “polar plunge” in the ocean in the middle of March. Jaya is now working to introduce her program in elementary and middle schools in her school district.