Though the Celebrate Diversity! program is celebrating its platinum anniversary, chairwoman Judi Sue Meisner said the program hasn't changed that much in 20 years.
The ultimate goal, she said, remains the same - teaching area kids how to better understand and respect the different cultures that surround them.
"We're always tweaking it," Meisner said, "but the basic format remains because we think we've found an excellent formula."
Celebrate Diversity! participants stop for a picture at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. A trip to the capital in May is part of the final session of the program. Students talk about the former president’s disabilities as part of the first session in September.
On Saturday, more than 250 seventh- and eighth-graders from Blair and Bedford counties will continue that tradition at the first class for this year's program. The students will meet on three more Saturdays over the next several months, culminating in a May trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which Meisner said really brings home the program's message to the kids. Lessons focus on topics like race, religion, hate and bullying.
"We really just seek to teach understanding and compassion," said Jan Housman, a member of the program's board of directors. "I think compassion is a really big part of the program."
The first thing the students learn is how it feels to be ostracized, Housman said.
The kids are divided into different groups and treated differently based on their appearance, then brought back together to discuss how it felt to be treated poorly for something that's out of your control, Meisner said.
"So we start out with a real one-two punch, and it goes from there," she said. "We learn that we can't judge a book by its cover - ever."
Quay Hanna, a Pennsylvania native who speaks about racism and bullying to kids across the country, said he shows the kids how words can lead to hate on a much larger scale. Hanna developed racist attitudes during his youth, he said, and saw a "dramatic shift" in his perspective after taking a 12,000-mile bus tour around the country.
He said that "it's a short trip to begin that process of violence."
"I explain that, you know, it wasn't like Adolf Hitler woke up, organized some guys and was like, "Let's go kill some Jews,'" Hanna said. "It started with an attitude and words. I try to emphasize the importance of language and how we talk."
Lauren Jacobson, an instructor of human development at Penn State Altoona, has been working with the program since its second year. She said she, at the first session, helps the kids better grasp diversity by relating it to something they're all experiencing: puberty.
Jacobson, whose research focuses on adolescents, said elementary-age students all tend to be very similar, and it is not until they reach junior high and puberty sets in that they really see the differences that exist between people. The kids aren't always comfortable with talking about the changes they're experiencing, she said, but it helps to put diversity in context.
She said their discussion tends to focus especially on race, age and religion - which are easier for the students to understand and recognize - though the kids will bring up other topics, including sexuality.
"I don't address sexuality intentionally, but kids bring it up sometimes," Jacobson said. "I think they're ready to have those conversations."
The first session also helps the kids better understand the lives of the disabled by challenging them to experience it for themselves, Housman said. They hear from people who are blind and deaf, try to maneuver around in wheelchairs and simulate blindness.
"They really struggle and see how hard it is to move around," Housman said.
In the second session, held in December, the students will visit area synagogues and churches to learn about different religions in the region. Students in the program come from parochial and public schools, and the session lesson introduces them to things they've never encountered before, Meisner said.
The districts participating are Altoona, Hollidaysburg, Diocese of Altoona/Johnstown, Claysburg-Kimmel, Spring Cove, Northern Bedford County and the Jewish Community School.
She said helping these different groups of kids get to know each other better highlights the main tenants of Celebrate Diversity!
"Our main goal is to fight hatred and prejudice, and we start at the level with children learning to get along with one another," she said. "Do that and you get a better world."
Before the final field trip to Washington, the third session of Celebrate Diversity! is dedicated to hate groups and teaching the students about the events that led to the Holocaust.
Part of that lesson involves presentations from ninth-graders at Hollidaysburg Area Junior High School, some of whom were a part of Celebrate Diversity! themselves. Laura Frederick, who created the project about a dozen years ago, called it a "great multi-age sharing opportunity."
The ninth-graders read books about the Holocaust, like "Night" by Elie Weisel, and then channel the stories into a variety of art projects, including paintings, songs and dioramas, Frederick said. Some students have even posted their music on YouTube.
Frederick, who was moved to the high school for this school year and is no longer heading the project, said some of her students have been rewarded for participating in the lesson by being invited on the Celebrate Diversity! trip to the museum. They also receive class points for bringing their works to the program's third session.
"I think it was about more than extra credit for them," Frederick said. "They've really built a passion for it, and I think they want to share that passion with somebody else."
Jacobson is also involved in helping Celebrate Diversity! reach beyond the classroom by surveying the students at the beginning and end of the program. The survey has been a part of the program since its second year, she said.
She said that the students consistently have attitudes formed about race, but it's not quite so straightforward on other issues. The girls in the program tend to be more interested in gender, and the kids are also usually aware of stereotypes of the elderly, Jacobson said.
Jacobson said it's tough for researchers to tell exactly how much of an impact the program has on the students' attitudes, as many of them come to the program with open minds.
"I think it helps them think about how they feel and then sort of solidify that, feel good about that," she said.
Hanna said programs like Celebrate Diversity! can help to weed out the kids who will really take a leadership role in promoting diversity and tolerance.
"There's always leaders," he said, "and one of my primary objectives is to find who those leaders are."
Celebrate Diversity! also holds a training session for local educators to help them better work with their students on diversity issues.
This year's session, Housman said, had to be postponed because the speaker was unable to attend. A date had not been set as of press time, although organizers were working to reschedule.
"We all need education in the area of tolerance and understanding," Housman said. "It's not just a kid thing. It's a thing that we all need educated on."
At sessions for both the students and teachers, the program emphasizes the idea of not becoming a bystander to prejudice. Housman said this is one of the key tenants of the program.
"We talk about how there are very few bad guys and lots of good guys," she said, "and if the good guys would just stand up, then we could really help those who are victims of bullying."
Housman said that many of the students can think of a time where they could have stood up for someone and, for whatever reason, didn't. She said they share these stories and discuss ways they could have stepped in or done something different.
Jacobson said the program "turns the kids into little ambassadors" as they explore these situations.
The students also discuss cyberbullying and how they can still help someone being harassed, even if it's online. The kids are encouraged to talk to their parents or to another trusted adult if they witness any kind of bullying and are told that reporting such behavior is just as good as, if not better than, getting directly involved, Housman said.
Even if a student comes to Celebrate Diversity! with prejudices, the program encourages them not to discriminate against others, which is "on the right path," she said. At the most basic level, don't ruin someone else's day, the kids are told.
"I always say to the kids, if you see something and you get angry or disgusted, keep it to yourself," she said. "It would be really nice to reach out and be a friend, but if you can't, at least control your inclination."
Promoting critical thinking skills, Hanna said, is key to encouraging the kids to stand up for what's right.
"[The kids] know what they believe and why they believe it, so you can challenge them up front," he said.
Meisner, who has been the program's chairwoman since its second year, said it was a "privilege" to spend 19 years educating kids on dealing with and overcoming prejudice.
She said this year's theme, which will be printed on shirts and given to the students, sums up the program perfectly: "We are all part of the same race - the human race."
"We're all different," Meisner said, "and yet we all have similarities."
Mirror Staff Writer Paige Minemyer is at 946-7535.