Two South Mississippi schools are making accepting others a top priority.
Pass Christian High School and their sister school, Long Beach High School, have implemented their own Junior Civitan branches to promote the idea that all students, including those with mental and physical challenges, should be treated equally
“I started Junior Civitan because I wanted to provide an outlet for high school students that didn’t center around academics or athletics,” said Melissa Mannion, Pass Christian High School counselor and founder of the PCHS Jr. Civitan Chapter. “I wanted all students to have a group to belong to, disabilities or not. I felt that serving students with special needs just further included all students.”
A Nationally Board Certified counselor with more than 28 years of experience, Mannion has seen the effects of bullying.
Honey LeBlanc, an algebra teacher at Long Beach Middle School and charter president of Coastal Civitan, also deals with the issue in her Long Beach chapter of Junior Civitan
“Different doesn’t mean less,” LeBlanc said.
The mission of the Junior Civitan chapters is to offer acceptance and friendships.
“Teens need to be given opportunities to advocate for others,” she said. “When they can see the benefits of this, they will likely carry this passion into adulthood.”
These coastal groups have been advocating for the acceptance of those with disabilities, sponsoring events like Spread the Word Day and an annual fall festival that educates communities about inclusion.
One of the most anticipated events of the year is the annual Coastal Civitan Camp, an overnight summer camp for those with mental and physical challenges, hosted at Camp Wilkes in Biloxi.
“It offers everything a [typical summer camp] would offer,” LeBlanc said. “Our campers fish, boat, swim, do arts and crafts, and most importantly have fun.”
Mannion believes a summer camp that allows everyone to be themselves is needed in today’s social climate.
“Kids with disabilities don’t get to have the same social outlets as other people do,” she said. “These children aren’t (always) invited to birthday parties, social events or sporting outings . . . [Coastal Civitan Camp] offers an opportunity for everyone to gain a new perspective.”
According to Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center, those with challenges were two or three times more likely to be bullied than their peers.
“I think that the bullies fear that they, themselves, are inferior and try to make themselves feel better by being mean,” LeBlanc said. “Those with disabilities are often their targets, because they may not have the necessary communication or social skills to stand up for themselves.”
While these Coastal schools have proactively addressed bullying, Mannion and LeBlanc agree there are needed improvements in society for those who face challenges.
“We need more job opportunities for people,” she said. “We need more day programs and events.”
Mannion agreed by saying, “[We need to] make more experiences happen. It has to be a conscious effort on everyone’s part. The more we all play together, the more we learn to care for each other.”
The Junior Civitan chapters and the Coastal Civitan group offer ways for students to “gain the perspective to see that service to others is amazing,” LeBlanc said.
“I believe that Junior Civitan reminds us, as a society, that we shouldn’t take opportunities for inclusion by chance. We need to MAKE them happen,” said Mannion. “Constant little reminders of our differences will make them the norm, and prevent bullying.”
These two Mississippi high schools work to educate students and communities that those living with disabilities are not any less than those living without.
Both LeBlanc and Mannion agree we have a long way to go until we can truly promote the idea of acceptance, but both are confident that their students will “make the world a kinder place.”
“Everyone wants the same thing,” said LeBlanc, “to make it through this life with the love and acceptance of others. You don’t have to be perfect to be worthy.”