As seniors began clearing the Rogers High School campus Wednesday after picking up their royal purple and gold caps and gowns, 20 or so students huddled in the cafeteria waiting for Jaime Stacy, the high school’s equity advocate and school community specialist.
Stacy and the students are part of Strong Women Achieving Greatness, a school organization looking to empower young students. After school Wednesday, SWAG held a tree planting to honor their graduating seniors’ hopes and wishes as they enter the next stage of life. The idea for the ceremony started when Stacy was honored with a tree in 2019 for her work with SWAG.
“I said, ‘It would’ve been really cool to have my SWAG participants out there,’ ” Stacy said of the original ceremony. “I wanted them to have that connection (to each other) and that’s when we began to see this ceremony needed to be something that happens all the time.”
Growing up in southeast Missouri, Stacy had few views of what community looked like. She remembered the support and love her two sisters and mother gave her throughout her life, and looked to give students a safe place during the ever-changing time that high school can be.
“That’s why SWAG identifies confidence as being strong, and understanding what your strengths are, all while honoring help from others,” Stacy said. “It’s not an indictment of men, and that’s why we have young men coming into the SWAG group. We understand we need each other, and it’s building that beloved community together.”
The organization holds meetings while also participating in activities such as reading Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming” to understand stages of growth.
Programs like SWAG build trust, community and love throughout the student body, something that Rogers principal John Hammil said he admires and finds necessary.
“Jaime Stacy has done an amazing job to create this program to really give kids a connection to each other,” he said.
Katelynn Harmon, the school’s therapist, is also part of SWAG. She attended the ceremony as well, understanding the students’ experiences and commending Stacy for easing that journey.
“I have several students, male and female, that come to SWAG and they find it very empowering,” Harmon said. “Being able to be involved in groups like this is really healing a lot of my students who felt really lonely for the past two years.”
Stacy is inspired by how the students build community by supporting and trusting one another. She also loves that the students support each other outside of the program, seeing their bond in classrooms or while passing in the hallways.
“Anywhere I am in this building, they want to be with me, they will try to find me, they know where my office is, and my office stays full,” she said.
The tree ceremony started with a land acknowledgment and traditional song performance by mother-daughter duo Idella King and Tanisha Rattler, two Northern Arapaho tribe members.
“As part of a two-legged nation, we are all just part of a whole,” King said. “So today in this honoring with Ms. Stacy, you young ladies can bring your children and grandchildren back here and talk about the significance of this tree.”
King also gifted the students with a traditional tobacco mix to plant into the ground. It signified their dreams and was as an offer of gratitude back to Earth. The ceremony continued with Nancy McKerrow, the founder of The Susie Forest. McKerrow began The Susie Forest after her daughter Susie was killed in 2002.
Planting trees helped her process the grief of losing Susie, and helps her spread love and encouragement throughout the community. SWAG’s mission to empower children into their dreams reminds McKerrow of Susie’s passion for the environment.
“Because she loved the outdoors and loved to have shade to ride her bike in, I decided to start planting trees,” she said. “So I’m going to have you put down your hopes and dreams … no matter what, this tree will always know your hopes and dreams.”
The students wrote down their aspirations on a sustainable brown paper tied to a rope that will disintegrate as the tree grows.
The Susie Forest’s gift to The Class of 2022 is a Royal Raindrops crabapple tree that sports seasonal reddish leaves. It is the 353rd tree for Susie’s forest, and McKerrow placed a purple and gold rock into the dirt to symbolize Rogers High School.
The seniors had to leave for a meeting with school administration, so underclassmen took the initiative to write messages on their behalf.
“I hope to be happy, and I hope to be great,” one message on the tree reads.
Another message was about becoming a great veterinarian and having a great life. Others leaned into their community, wishing all of Rogers High School students an opportunity to follow their dreams.
Cam Cole, a sophomore at Rogers, filled out a treegram, wishing “to better myself and become successful with my life for me.” SWAG, Cole said, has inspired her to continue reaching for the highest goals that she can. She’s been a member since her freshman year.
Though her curriculum will ramp up during her junior year, Cole made it her mission to stay active in SWAG since Stacy has given her space that “no one has before.”
“I met Ms. Stacy at a really bad time and she really inspired me to strive,” said Cole, who has dreams of becoming a nurse. “This group has really taught me a lot about myself and how to be a woman of color in this space. She means a lot to me.”
After the ceremony, the remaining students enjoyed cookies and other snacks in the cafeteria, hugging and waving goodbye to Stacy.
It was just another day in the tight-knit group, another moment for Stacy to know her hard work is paying off through the bonds being formed in SWAG.
The tree planting ceremony is meant to take place for the next seven years. But Stacy, looking at her students, said she can tell the impact of SWAG will last a lifetime.
“Today, we were able to connect the achieving and the becoming,” Stacy said.