On World Kindness Day, Freeman's Wellness Crew sets students on a weeklong "Goosechase" for good deeds

On World Kindness Day, Freeman's Wellness Crew sets students on a weeklong "Goosechase" for good deeds

By Tyler Dahlgren

You may or may not have heard, but November 13th was World Kindness Day. And while the international observance is growing in popularity across the globe, and rightfully so, nobody celebrated it in 2023 quite like the Freeman Falcons.

The district’s Wellness Crew, a group of 30 students in grades 7-12, used World Kindness Day to kick off their second week-long “Wellness Challenge” of the school year, sending students on a scavenger hunt (of sorts) for random acts of kindness. Throughout the week, the Wellness Crew helped to spread good vibes and tracked activity within the school’s hallways using the “Goosechase” app.

Last year, ESU 5 school psychologist Jamie Mapp, who’s worked with the district for five years now, and Freeman counselor Trish Alexander facilitated three challenges on their own. This year, they made the decision to hand off those duties to the Wellness Crew. The message, they thought, would resonate with the student body better coming from them.

They thought right. Over half of Freeman’s 208 Jr./Sr. High School students participated in the first “Goosechase”, a staggering number that reflects the district’s prioritization of mental health and wellness.

“Mental health is something that is really big right now and something that we are really mindful of at Freeman,” said sophomore Wellness Crew member Brooklyn Veerhusen. “To be able to say you’re a part of helping push that forward is really cool.”

On Monday, and for the rest of the week, the crew pushed out several missions each day, all of which were rooted in wellness. The objectives were simple. Hold the door for a classmate. Give a hug or a high-five. Take a picture in nature. Go for a walk. Write a note to someone who might need it.

Easy enough, right? The impact of something as simple as a high-five, though, can be massive.

“Since we started these things, you can always rely on somebody to be there to put a smile on your face,” said senior Faith Holland, who was eager to join the Wellness Crew after hearing what it was all about. “Even when you’re having a bad day, all you have to do is look around you to find something that somebody has put out. It’s just awesome.”

Being a bright light for someone else, that’s what swayed senior Kyla Davison to join the Wellness Crew.

“I just like to live each day with positivity,” she said. “Just sharing that positivity and helping classmates look to the bright side, that’s rewarding for me.”

Students score points for each mission accomplished, and there’s a live leaderboard on the app that is both fun and addicting to follow. It’s spread beyond the school day’s bells, too. Veerhusen remembers a new mission coming through before softball practice this fall, sending the players on a scurry to complete the challenge.

“We received the challenge and immediately tried to be the first ones to get it done,” said Veerhusen. “Our coaches were like, ‘What are you guys doing?’. We were able to share with them that we were just trying to put a smile on their faces and have a positive impact on everyone. That got our practice started on a good note.”

Those positive vibes followed them through a 24-6 season that ended in the state tournament. This is Veerhusen’s second year at Freeman. The wellness challenges helped her feel at home right away.

“From day one, there was always somebody there to either pick you up when you were down or relate to why you are feeling a certain way,” she said.

Junior Trevor Reed came to Freeman from another district as well, and he too was pleasantly surprised by his new district’s climate and culture.

“We’re definitely unique in that we’re a smaller school and we have Jamie and Mrs. Alexander here to talk to and to see how we’re doing every day,” Reed said. “It’s a more individualized experience. Talking about mental health is normal here, and I don’t think it’s like that everywhere.”

Freeman Public Schools is proud of that distinction. They’re proud to be unique. And they’re embracing the challenge of mental health destigmatization.

“Freeman’s always been associated with extracurricular accomplishments,” said 7-12 principal Cody Wallinger, a Diller-Odell graduate who joined the district before the school year. “When you think of Freeman, the product you’re going to get on a stage, on a court, on a field or wherever, is going to be top-notch. But it’s been an eye-opener to see the people behind the product. And I’m sure this is the case in a lot of schools, but sometimes those people don’t fully realize how important they are and how valuable they are.”

Wallinger said it’s been equally as eye-opening, and inspiring, to watch Alexander and Mapp connect with students. The more the district invests in student wellness, he said, the more the kids will buy in. And while the Goosechase missions are light-hearted and even silly at times, they can mean more to a struggling student than we’ll ever even know. 

Sometimes a moment of laughter can carry someone through a hard day, Mapp said.

“This is the safest, most consistent place some of these kids will ever have,” Wallinger continued. “They step in here and they know these people. They know they care, and they really do. This is our family. This is it. And it’s the little things that really do mean something.”

That’s the underlying goal. For every student having a bad day, there should be somewhere to turn. Through the Wellness Crew’s work, there is, said junior Jobjosiah Mufiani.

“There’s always going to be someone here that will care about you,” he said.

“It makes us feel more like a family than just a bunch of kids who have to go to school together,” added senior Kolby Mahler. “It makes people more excited to be around everyone every day.”

You can tell when you’re around a group of Freeman Falcons, said junior Ruby Goes, who isn’t on the Wellness Crew yet but does serve on the student council.

“You can just tell something’s different,” Goes said. “We count on people here. You can always rely on somebody here to have your back.”

Superintendent Dr. Andrew Havelka said Mapp’s work and the Wellness Crew’s mission has boosted the district’s culture in an incredibly positive way. For an administrator, there’s nothing better than seeing students helping students.

“Something as simple as putting together a kindness initiative can have an enormous impact and it can also expand out to how kids work together academically, how our community approaches our school, and how our school fits into the community,” Havelka said. “It’s such a huge program, and anything that can be student-led and student-driven, that just heightens the importance of it.”

It’s hard for Mapp to believe that five years has flown by so fast. She’s known this group of upperclassmen since they were in seventh and eighth grade, and yet she’s still amazed by their creativity and the initiative they take spreading kindness. Not just during wellness challenges, either. 

This is what they’re about, each and every day.

“It’s pretty remarkable,” Mapp said. “Being a teenager isn’t easy, and when they can have some control over either helping somebody else or helping themselves, that’s where the magic happens.”