Story and photos by Jo Mathis
AAPS District News Editor
Hear Hailey talk about the Wonder Wall:
Principal Chuck Hatt says the wall reflects the school’s culture of kindness and compassion:
Winnie Jalet reflects on starting the Wonder Wall at her former elementary:
Story and photos by Jo Mathis/AAPS District News
When Tappan Middle School student Winnie Jalet returns to her former Burns Park Elementary School, she makes sure she stops by one place in particular: The Wonder Wall she helped create.
“It’s awesome!” said Winnie. “I feel so proud, and it just helps so much.”
The Wonder Wall is a collection of inspirational quotes on plaques lining a main hall of the school.
It all began about four years ago when Burns Park media specialist Rachel Erdstein told the mother of then first grader Hailey Bretzius about a book titled “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio.
The main character in the book has a facial deformity, and Hailey had been self-conscious about her own lymphatic malformation. She was diagnosed with the rare condition at birth, and has since had several surgeries to remove parts of the benign tumor between the muscles on one side of her face.
Hailey’s parents read her the book, and the entire family loved it.
Two years later, the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Michigan told Hailey it would grant her a wish.
Hailey, in third grade at the time, didn’t want to be greedy. And besides, she’d already been to Disney World.
So she decided to do something for every other student in the school: She had Make A Wish bring her new favorite author, R.J. Palacio in to school to talk to the children about empathy, compassion, and kindness.
“I was thinking I could do something to inspire people to read the book, and to inspire them, so I picked “Wonder” because it’s a nice novel, and I’m glad everybody liked it,” Hailey said.
She said the assemblies she helped lead were lots of fun, beginning with the moment Palacio surprised her with a knock on her classroom door. The two spent the day together, and co-ran two assemblies that together included all students.
“Choose kindness” was the theme.
Winnie Jalet, who was a fifth grader at the time as well as a good friend of Hailey’s, read the follow-up book, “365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Books of Precepts.”
Winnie came up with the idea of establishing a non-profit foundation that invites children to purchase plaques with the words of precepts for loved ones engraved on them.
The foundation raises money to fund each year an additional school-wide event focusing on kindness and care.
“It’s a new Burns Park tradition that we’re very excited about continuing,” said Principal Chuck Haat.
Hailey thinks the message of kindness at those assemblies helped a school population that was already compassionate.
“This is a very kind school,” she said. “There are no bullies. It’s a friendly place; friendly neighborhood. People are nice to each other in classes, at lunch, at recess. Everywhere. It’s just a really kind school.”
Hatt said the Wonder Wall is just one of the ways the Burns Park community thinks about its culture.
“You don’t shape a culture with a single event or a single cultural artifact,” he said.
“You accrete these things that express your values, and you build a culture around that. You don’t say, `Hey! We have a new poster now. Let’s change our behavior.’ It’s more a way of helping us sort through all the noise and information that we get at school and say: `What are the most important things to us?’ And the things we choose to put on our walls, in our classrooms, the events we choose to celebrate, the songs we choose to sing, the books we choose to read: those choices in the aggregate really define our culture around us.”