That fact that she was perceived as different from everyone else really hit home for Jessica Beers when she was in the fifth grade at Hellgate Elementary in Missoula. Her muscular dystrophy was beginning to make it impossible to keep up physically with her classmates, and that in turn led to isolation.
“One of my friends told me I was holding her back from making new friends and it was my fault that I had a physical disability,” Beers told a crowd on Thursday at Big Sky High School, where she is now a senior. “She said if I was normal, more people would talk to me and people wouldn’t feel sorry for me.”
Speaking from a wheelchair, Beers poured her heart out to her fellow classmates as part of Diversity Week at the school.
“I was bullied for the majority of my childhood for being different,” she recalled. “As I grew older, I found I could not physically keep up with my friends on the playground and I started having more surgeries and missing more school.”
Her friend’s words that day that made her feel like her “world was crumbling down.” She felt out of control.
“We all have that childhood friend that we all tell our secrets to, right? Well for me, that person told me that I wasn’t worth anyone else’s time or hers,” Beers recounted. “I would blame myself every day for having a disability and I was even frustrated at myself.”
However, during her freshman year at Big Sky High School, she started volunteering with groups like Empower Montana and the YWCA, which she called a “turning point” in her life.
“I started to realize that I am capable of being independent and that my voice does matter,” she said. “There’s more to me than being in a wheelchair. I love volunteering, camping and skiing and many more activities. This week is about not only accepting others for their differences but also learning something new from someone else’s perspective and experience.”
That, in essence, is what Diversity Week is all about. Started by the Flagship after-school program in Missoula 13 years ago, Diversity Week brings to area schools speakers and events that celebrate inclusiveness and acceptance.
For her senior project, Beers had a dozen people – six students, four teachers and two administrators – use a wheelchair for two straight days in November the entire time they were on campus. Beers didn’t allow shortcuts – she even made them use the bathroom without the use of their legs.
“So, the moment they got to school to the moment they left,” she said. Beers then interviewed the participants and made a video. During a snippet she showed to the crowd, teachers told Beers they were surprised at how vulnerable and out-of-control of their lives they felt during those two days.
Most of them told her they were sore from sitting down for so long. For Beers, it was a way of giving people a small taste of the difficulties she and her fellow classmates – 20 percent of Big Sky students quality for the Individualized Education Program because of a disability – face every day.
Big Sky Principal Natalie Jaeger said the school hosted Mary Poole of Soft Landing Missoula, which supports refugee resettlement efforts, earlier this week. Poole brought a family from Liberia with her as a way to put a human face on the terms “refugees” and “immigrants.”
Also on Thursday, EmpowerMT president Christopher Coburn – a 2009 grad of Big Sky – spoke about being a “brown-skinned” gay person in Missoula and how everyone has different sexual identities.
Following Coburn, Laurie Franklin, the spiritual leader of the Har Shalom Synagogue, spoke to the crowd about how she handled a crisis late last year when pro-Nazi propaganda leaflets were distributed for many days around the Missoula area. Her message was that people have to stand up to hate, intolerance and injustice.
“All of them are sort of the theme of knowing your own identity and also what do you do when somebody isn’t being open-minded and big-hearted with you,” Jaeger explained. “How can you take action? It’s part of our whole Diversity Week activities. It allows students to realize that it’s OK to be different and also how can you be open-minded and open-hearted with people who are different than you.”
Jaeger said she wants to stress that being open-minded is not necessarily just about learning to say the “right” thing.
“It’s about how to be leaders in the community when there’s a variety of people, interests and values,” she said. “That’s in every workplace and every community you live in.”