Exhibit teaches acts of kindess

Croatan High School sophomore Lexus Sosa looks Tuesday at portraits of victims of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., created by CHS art students in honor of the victims and their families. (Cheryl Burke photo)

OCEAN — When Croatan High School art teacher Catherine Olander and her students heard about the mass shooting Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., they wanted to do something to honor the 17 victims and families.

“I knew my students and I had to do something to spread kindness to these families,” Ms. Olander said.

She decided to have her beginning and intermediate visual art students create portraits of each victim, write a brief journal entry about them and write a pledge to do an act of kindness related to one of the victims.

The idea took off, and Tuesday, students opened an exhibit featuring paintings and drawings of each victim in the school’s hallway.

The exhibit will remain up through the end of May, then artwork, writings and pledges will be sent to the victims’ families. Those viewing the show are also welcome to pledge an act of kindness in memory of a victim.

The exhibit will be open to the general public from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 22.

Ms. Olander said the idea for the project began with a Feb. 14 Facebook posting of one of the victims by Ms. Olander’s friend, Chalmers Champion-McCahill, a former Morehead City resident who now lives near the high school in Parkland, Fla.

The photo was of Gina Montalto, a 14-year-old.

“Gina babysat for Chalmers’ children,” Ms. Olander said. “The post said that Gina’s family and friends had not seen or heard anything from her that afternoon.”

The art teacher said she prayed and kept hoping, but later that week heard Gina was among the victims.

“My heart sank and I have not been able to get beautiful Gina, an angel, out of my mind,” she said.

That same week Ms. Olander said she saw one of her students, sophomore Cassidy Jones, creating a visual journal entry honoring the victims. Around the same time, another art student, freshman Lauren Ramos, attended a conference where she heard Alex Sheen, founder of “Because I said I would,” a social movement and nonprofit dedicated to the betterment of humanity through promises made and kept, speak.

“The idea is to take a card and write a promise to someone or to yourself. You then give it to the person, or even post it on social media, as long as you take yourself into some sort of accountability. When you fulfill the promise, you get the card back,” Ms. Olander said.

That’s when the idea for an art show featuring the portraits of each victim, combined with pledging to do acts of kindness in their memory, came together. She contacted Ms. Champion-McCahill, who agreed to give the portraits and promise cards to the victims’ families or school.

In addition, CHS sophomore Lindsey Armstrong, who has a friend who attends Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, texted her friend to let her know what students planned to do.

“She texted me back and thanked our school for all of their support,” Lindsey said.

As well as creating about 50 portraits, students created lists and ideas of random acts of kindness in honor of each victim based on their personalities, hobbies or interests. Those kind acts are listed with each portrait.

In addition, there are 17 jars with the name of each victim and blank promise cards for anyone who wants to commit to an act of kindness in their memory. People just fill out the card and place it in the jar of the victim they are honoring. They hope to get more than 1.2 million promise cards, enough to provide a promise for each day of the year for each student and teacher at the school.

Student artists standing by their portraits during the exhibit Tuesday said the show has changed their lives. All have committed to acts of kindness, and said learning about the victims has given them a new appreciation for life and helping others.

Sophomore C.J. Brooks, 16, did a portrait of Peter Wang, 15, who held the door open for teachers and students to escape, losing his life in the process.

“He has inspired me to help others,” C.J. said. “I pledge to hold the door for anybody who needs help.”

Senior Ashley Pridgen chose to draw Meadow Pollack, who was an 18-year-old senior.

“I picked her because she was a senior and I felt a connection because she was going through the same things I am. She was getting ready to graduate and go to college. She was such a pretty girl,” Ashley said.

“This project has made me realize this could have happened to any of us,” she continued. “It makes me understand these people weren’t just statistics, they were people. I have promised to ask people how their day is going. I know it means a lot to me when someone asks.”

Cassidy painted Nicholas Dworet, 17.

“I really liked that he was a really good swimmer and had a scholarship for swimming. He was a very positive and encouraging person. I was really inspired and moved by him to do my best to reach my goals and encourage others,” she said.

Sophomore Lexus Sosa, 15, created a portrait of Jaime Guttenberg, 14.

“Just looking at her photo she looked so vibrant and like she was going to change the world,” Lexus said. “While I was painting this I cried. I can’t believe what this world is coming to. I wish there was a way to find out why this happened and what was going on in the shooter’s mind so they could have helped him.”

As for Ms. Olander, she painted Gina.

“It has been an honor to paint Gina. She will forever have a special place in my heart. I hope that her portrait and this small act of kindness will be a blessing to her family,” Ms. Olander said.

Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.

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