The Utica National Insurance Group, Integrated Community Alternatives Network (ICAN), Oneida-Herkimer-Madison (OHM) BOCES and Westmoreland Central School District partnered to present a special, one-day educational program for area ninth grade students called, “Overcoming Obstacles: A Message of Connection, Resilience and Hope.”

The program took place on Tuesday, October 11, at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, in Utica. More than 2,500 ninth grade students from 24 school districts in the OHM BOCES, Madison-Oneida BOCES and Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES regions participated. The school districts are:

Brookfield, Camden, Clinton, Frankfort-Schuyler, Hamilton, Holland Patent, Madison, Morrisville, Mt. Markham, New Hartford, New York Mills, NYS School for the Deaf, Oriskany, Remsen, Richfield Springs, Rome, Sauquoit, Stockbridge, Utica*, Vernon-Verona-Sherrill, Waterville, West Canada Valley, Westmoreland and Whitesboro.

The main purpose of the program was to encourage ninth grade students to “find that adult in your life,” as they transition from junior high to senior high and continue to navigate the many changes, challenges and hardships created by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the morning, students participated in one of more than 30 different breakout sessions, with each featuring a unique activity led by a trained facilitator centered on the themes of connection, resilience and hope. At the conclusion of the breakout sessions, students “debriefed” with their facilitators to discuss the important lessons and concepts they learned. In the afternoon, all students gathered in the Wildcat Field House at SUNY Polytechnic Institute for a presentation by keynote speakers, Erin Gruwell and Liz Murray.

Erin Gruwell is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, “The Freedom Writers Diary.” The book, and basis for the movie “Freedom Writers,” starring Hilary Swank, tells the story of Gruwell and her 150 at-risk students at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, CA during the early 1990s. Determined to create a brighter future for her students, Gruwell turned to writing and literature to persuade them to embrace history, humanity and hope. She specifically used literature to compare the turmoil of the time to some of the worst examples of society’s inhumanity towards one another. The parallels to their own lives emboldened Gruwell’s students to write their own journals, becoming a form of solace. When the students anonymously read each other’s journals, division was replaced with unity and understanding. As a result, the “Freedom Writers” were born.

Liz Murray is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, “Breaking Night,” and co-founder of “The Arthur Project.” The organization advocates for underserved youth – particularly youth in middle school – and works to end generational poverty through relationship-based learning. Once a school dropout and homeless, Murray returned to school, earned her high school diploma in just two years and won a scholarship to Harvard University, where she graduated from in 2009. She went on to receive her master’s degree in Psychology of Education at Columbia University, and her personal journey is the subject of Lifetime Television’s Emmy-nominated original film, “Homeless to Harvard.” As a passionate advocate for underserved youth, Murray believes having a strong relationship with at least one caring, dedicated adult can make all the difference for a child facing adversity.

Richard P. Creedon, Chairman of the Board and CEO of the Member Companies of the Utica National Insurance Group, said:

“Helping students overcome the challenges that they face in their lives and letting them know that others are here to support them as they grow and learn are vital as they move through their high school years. That’s why the Overcoming Obstacles program and the messages that Erin Gruwell and Liz Murray will share are so important – and will help to inspire connection, resilience, and hope in these young people. We are pleased and proud to partner with Integrated Community Alternatives Network (ICAN), Oneida-Herkimer-Madison (OHM) BOCES, and Westmoreland Central School District to help bring this outstanding and beneficial program to the students.”

Steven Bulger, CEO/Executive Director of ICAN, said:

“We’re honored to join great partners in creating this unique conference for our area’s ninth graders. It will offer so many things ICAN emulates – self-awareness, empowerment, innovation and community connectedness. Young attendees will leave with knowledge they can implement into their daily lives right away and insight that can stay with them throughout their academic and professional careers.”

Patricia N. Kilburn, Ed.D., District Superintendent of the Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES, said:

“We’re thrilled to be able to partner with ICAN, Utica National and the Westmoreland CSD to provide this unique personal growth opportunity for our region’s ninth graders. There are so many stressors in today’s world, and while we can’t always shield children from challenges, we can teach them the skills needed to bounce back. As educators, we play an essential role in helping our students to develop the determination and ability to persevere through difficult circumstances in both school and life. Cultivating connection, resilience and hope will help our students to view obstacles as a critical part of success, manage any adversity they face and feel hopeful about the future.”

Rocco Migliori, Superintendent of Schools of the Westmoreland Central School District, said:

“The transition from junior high to senior high, alone, can be challenging. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic created even more obstacles for our middle school students as they grow into young adults – some of which they are still trying to navigate. ‘Overcoming Obstacles: A Message of Connection, Resilience and Hope is a great opportunity for all participating ninth grade students to be among their peers, interact with one another and hear inspirational messages from Erin Gruwell and Liz Murray, with whom the Westmoreland Central School District has forged a strong relationship with. Westmoreland is proud to partner with the Utica National Insurance Group, ICAN and OHM BOCES to offer this incredible program, and I’m confident students will walk away with valuable lessons not only about school, but life.”

As part of the program, all students receive a free drawstring bag and journal. Students are encouraged to use their journals throughout the school year to document their thoughts and feelings – just like Erin Gruwell’s students once did.

 “Overcoming Obstacles: A Message of Connection, Resilience and Hope” was offered through a partnership between the Utica National Insurance Group, Integrated Community Alternatives Network (ICAN), Oneida-Herkimer-Madison (OHM) BOCES and Westmoreland Central School District, along with host, SUNY Polytechnic Institute. The Utica National Insurance Group and ICAN were the official sponsors of the program.

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