Barnegat High School is embarking on a student-centered program to encourage empathy and connection. The initiative is part of a movement organized by a father who lost his young son in the Sandy Hook mass shooting, according to a news release.

“Empathy is an antidote,” Ian Hockley told students during a recent assembly as he spoke about what he calls the twin epidemics: social isolation and exclusion, along with antisocial behavior. The Sandy Hook shooter was said to be experiencing those issues when he killed Hockley’s son, Dylan; 19 other first-graders; and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.  “It’s easy to feel powerless — there’s so much to fix, but we call them epidemics because then we can talk about the antidote. What if we could fix where this all started?” he said.

Dylan’s Wings of Change operates on the belief that a world headed up by empathic leaders will act for the good of the planet and its citizens. The movement’s Wingman Youth Leadership program began in 2015 and will officially launch in Barnegat Township School District this September.  Next month, the district, along with facilitators from Dylan’s Wings of Change, will train student volunteers to run their own programs within the school to foster connection, understanding and empathy.

“It was amazing to see the active engagement from our students during Wednesday’s assembly,” said BTSD Superintendent Dr. Brian Latwis.  “It’s wonderful to already see the interest from students in getting involved.  Our hope is this program brings not just empathy, but kindness and respect through incremental changes not just here in our schools, but in our larger community as well.”

“We are excited to see this program take shape here in Barnegat,” said BHS Assistant Principal Tracee DuBeck. “We have so many students who I know will excel in this movement. I’m looking forward to reading through the applications along with Wingman Leadership to ensure we get a well-rounded group that will be able to reach our entire student population.”

The program is active in more than 50 schools in districts across New Jersey, Connecticut and New York and never looks exactly the same because it develops around each district’s unique needs, explained Hockley. Once trained, the youth leaders will run their own fun and engaging activities inside their schools and communities. The volunteers take ownership of the activities to provide for more authentic human interaction in a safe space for people to connect.

“The butterfly effect is real,” Hockley told the students. “Small ripples spread out. If enough people in a community commit to change, it will happen.”

Barnegat High School will soon start accepting applications from students in grades 9, 10 and 11 to be Wingman Youth Leaders for next school year. Organizers are hoping to select about 50 students for the first round of training.