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Masks of reflection

WHITE CITY — While a recent mask-making session might have seemed like friends laughing together and commiserating over the trials of pre-teen years, there was an underlying focus on self-reflection and encouragement of an anti-bullying environment at a critical time for students.

The Wednesday after-school workshops at White Mountain Middle School give students a chance to reflect on how they see themselves and how they think they are seen by others. The workshops are a collaboration between Medford's Life Art and the Grants Pass-based Heartisan Foundation.

Established in winter 2016, Heartisan Foundation focuses on a mission of youth advocacy and empowerment.

At the middle-school level last week, that mission had after-school participants creating colorful masks in order to answer the questions, "What do you see when you look in the mirror?" and "How do you think others see you?"

Busily spending the afternoon attaching bright, red jewels to the lips of one of her masks, seventh-grader Kenzie Warren, 11, said she saw herself as trying to be confident and brave whether she feels that way or not.

"People see me as a really brave person, but I feel like, honestly, I'm more scared than most people think I am," she said. "They wanted us to make a mask showing how people see us and how we see ourselves. Mine, for 'how people see us,' had a big grin on it and was really confident-looking. The paper was white, and I had red jewels for the lips, feathers for eyebrows and yellow buttons for eyes.

"It was kind of challenging for me to step out of my own body and look at how people would see me," Kenzie said. "It was a good experience, and I think it taught me not to care so much what people think, but to try to live up to only the good expectations and not worry about the negative."

Kenzie's classmate Destiny Johnson, 12, used her mask to depict her feelings of shyness.

"I drew a girl who was really shy toward other people and who wasn't comfortable being herself toward other people, because she was afraid maybe she would be bullied for it," Destiny said.

"I bejeweled my whole mask, but then the eyes are closed, and I was kind of not showing my face very much because I didn't want people to see the real me. A lot of people went with funny masks, but some of my friends pictured themselves in ways I never imagined seeing them. It helped to realize I wasn't alone and that other people have some of the same feelings I do."

Life Art founder Phil Ortega, who launched his nonprofit seven years ago and operates after-school programs in more than a half-dozen schools, said the White Mountain Middle School group was part of a teen group dubbed GEMS, Girls Expressing Many Strengths.

The group encourages positive self-imagery, guides teens in navigating life issues and teaches healthy communication tactics while touching on bullying prevention and empathy.

"When we first invited Heartisan Foundation to come provide curriculum, they brought in different kinds of leaves that were supposed to represent how we're all different, but none are better than another," Ortega said.

"The kids were challenged to ask themselves, 'Is one kid any better than another kid?' The discussions were very fruitful, and they all had some chance to reflect on those perceptions before they shared."

Ortega said the first six sessions, which cost $300 to $400 each, were provided by grant funding through the Heartisan Foundation, but the school is accepting donations to keep the curriculum going.

The current group of 36 students was less than half of the 80 who applied to participate, Ortega said, noting that donations can be directed to Life Art through White Mountain Middle School.

Students plan to finish the curriculum after spring break.

Heartisan Director Abram Katz said feedback from students showed the workshop met the intended goals.

"Our goals are to create self-expression and development of voice," Katz said. "To see these kids light up when they are able to freely express themselves artistically, it's like my soul food."

For more information, see www.heartisan.foundation or www.facebook.com/pg/lifeartprogram.

— Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com

Destiny Johnson, 12, of White City, works Wednesday on a writing exercise during an anti-bullying workshop at White Mountain Middle School in White City. Mirrors were used during the exercises to help students reflect while writing. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]