Editor's note: This is a mountaineagle.com online exclusive article. It is a companion piece to the Sunday, March 17, 2019, front page story on Jasper High School senior student Thomas Ward.
One of the legacies of senior Thomas Ward's time at Jasper High School will be the creation of a mentoring group at the school, which addresses some major needs - although Ward said adults need to do more to address the mental health issues of students who are overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy from today's society.
Jasper High Principal Jonathan Allen noted that Ward started the Institute of Excellence, that is in the works to remain and be active after he graduates this spring. Allen said it has been exciting to see it reach out to some students who otherwise might not reach their full potential or who could be at risk for dropping out.
"He's led a peer group of students to invest in those young people. They're going to spend a week in the woods at Camp McDowell," Allen said. "Certainly, he's had support from our faculty," he said.
Allen noted Ward is getting an opportunity in learning from the event, but the other Jasper High students involved "can learn from Thomas. Next year there is another Thomas Ward who will come from behind and lead the way in the school.
Ward said he spoke recent to a local group to raise half the funds for the trip. Grants associated with Camp McDowell helped to raise the other half.
"Now, we've reached our goal as far as fundraising, and we'll be spending a week in the Sipsey Wilderness, camping, canoeing and backpacking," he said. "I think we'll have 12 (students) going on the trip."
Allen said the group involves approximately 25 male students.
"We believe this will extend beyond May when Thomas graduates," he said. "This is a young group of guys who we feel has already demonstrated great leadership capacity, but we want them to have that support," as well as have the chance to develop skills and build relationships with the faculty."
Ward said the idea arose after he heard 40 to 50 percent of students were free lunch eligible.
"There are so many guys who I know of who are going through struggles and they don't think they can overcome their circumstance," he said. "They think the generational cycle of incarceration, of drug abuse and family upheaval, they think it is too great to overcome and that they will end up in the same boat as people who have gone before them.
"I simply want to change that because I firmly believe that America is a place where the bank of opportunity is not bankrupt and where anyone with a work ethic can achieve their dreams, and I want everyone else to see that as well. I don't want people to just stop at graduating high school, but I want people to graduate college. I don't want minority communities to be plagued by the issue of 70 to 80 percent of households being fatherless. I want fathers in the households. I just want to do everything I can to change this, and to leave a legacy but bigger than myself."
Allen said Ward has already tapped sophomore Mayson Slaughter, whom he said has shown great leadership abilities this year, to help lead the effort next school year. Ward has already invested time in him, with other senior men helping, and Allen felt confident about Slaughter's abilities.
Allen and Ward pointed out that Ward was not at the point of leadership he is today at his sophomore year.
"It takes some awareness on our part to know that students mature and they develop. Thomas has just recognized that," Allen said. Slaughter "was a sophomore president, and he led his group during Homecoming Week. Our sophomore class is very strong. I think he's got the same type of potential that we've seen come to life with Thomas."
Slaughter said, "Jasper has needed a program like this for a long time, and Thomas was the first one to kind of bring it to light. He's a great leader for it and he picked great people to be in it. He's a great motivator for it."
He said many students don't have any goals or driving force behind them. Ward has developed the program to help the students to learn to set goals and realize what they can become, and to realize "they are better than what anyone can imagine if they just put their mind to it."
Slaughter said the organization for a student is a club that is almost like a family that supports the student.
Ward, whose nature is generally positive, said it can be a challenge at times to encourage the others of his generation.
"But sometimes all it takes is one word of encouragement, just a simple spark of hope that can ignite a whole fire," he said. "That is simply what I try to do and the person that I try to be, to offer hope for people. They can overcome. Students can do great things. I don't want to do anything to discourage anyone or to prevent anyone from doing anything great by the things I do and the things that I say or the person I present myself to be."
Armed with an unusual eloquence to speak for his generation, he was asked what is on the hearts and minds of students he deals with.
"I would say there is such a feeling among students of inadequacy," Ward said. "Social media has played a pivotable road in that. It's all about how many likes that you get. It's all about students not being as good as whatever they see on social media or Netflix or any given platform really.
"There is a major issue of mental health. That is where I believe words of encouragement come in to play such a strong role. I mean, it's a crisis. It really is. And I don't believe people are addressing it like they should. I think there are so many negative people around here who are just making matters worse. There is no telling how many students go home and do things regarding self harm or who are on the verge of suicidal thoughts. It is a tragedy, really, so I would say that is the biggest thing going through students' minds."
He said adults many times are quick to discipline, although he acknowledged discipline certainly has a role in the correct time and place. But many times he said they do not try to understand the circumstance, which he points out as one of the points of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen R. Covey.
"A lot of parents are like, 'Oh, we were teenagers once,'" Ward said. "But things have changed a lot, even since I came into high school. I have a little sister in seventh grade. I mean, middle school now is much different than it was five years ago. There is a drastic difference."
Ward said others may help with the mentoring program by speaking to the students if they have something they feel they can share. Also, funding is needed as he would really like to start college tours to open eyes to the opportunities out there.
Allen said people can contact the high school and officials will get them to Ward.
"We really want to affirm his passion and give him the opportunity to lead in this and support him, because he is so busy in so many different things," he said.
Anyone wanting to help may call the school at 205-221-9277.