Program strives to make respect the norm

Published 12:03 pm Sunday, March 1, 2009

Whether young or old, at school or at work, at home or at play, every person deserves respect.

That’s the message behind the Operation Respect program, a nationally known program to create safe and bully-free learning climates for children, that started in the Albert Lea area within the last few months.

“It’s trying to evolve the culture as it relates to what’s acceptable,” said The Children’s Center Director Kim Nelson, who was involved with bringing the program to the area. “It’s our dream that respect will be something you don’t have to worry about.”

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Though it starts off with teaching respect to children in classrooms, the principles are something that can be taught to anyone of any age, Nelson said. Unfortunately there’s a lack of respect in many different areas —  not just at schools.

The program got started after Nelson and Dennis Dieser, director of the Albert Lea Family Y, went to a National Association for the Education of Young Children convention in 2007, where Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary presented. He is the founder of Operation Respect.

After the conference, Nelson and Dieser decided they wanted to bring the program to Albert Lea.

Through a $10,000 grant from the Kenneth W. Olson Foundation and a $5,000 impact grant from the United Way of Freeborn County, the program became a reality.

Nelson and Dieser formed a local Operation Respect committee and brought on respect ambassadors from different entities in the community, including Albert Lea Area Schools leaders, business leaders, early childhood educators and even 4-H leaders.

A healthy expression of feelings

Caring, compassion and cooperation

Creative resolution of conflicts

An appreciation of differences

Respect ambassadors have been making presentations about the program around the community, including at some schools, at the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis club and the Knights of Columbus Auxiliary, to name a few.

One of the presentations is about the story of “The Torn Heart,” which tells of a boy whose heart was torn every time he was put down, Nelson said. As a visual aid, the presenter would have a paper heart, and every time the boy was put down a chunk would be ripped off the heart. After the story, the presenter talks about what things can be done to build that heart back up.

She said the group would like to get out to preschool age children, parent groups at workforce development training, and even Senior Resources to teach.

It’s never too late to learn these principles, Nelson said.

The group also has hopes of having a junior high program in late February or early March to talk about the program with students of that age group, and they also hope to have a community breakfast to get the word out to even more people, she said. The eventual hope is that soon both Albert Lea and Freeborn County will have one day set aside as Neighborhood Respect Day.

“It’s just really trying to get the word out to people that it doesn’t have to be the other way,” Nelson said. “The expectation we want to have in Albert Lea and Freeborn County is you’re going to be respected in whatever you do.”

She said things have happened in the community that show a lack of respect for another human being has consequences.

People need to re-examine the way they talk to each other — whether it’s an employer talking to employees, employees talking to an employer, people talking at church council meetings or people talking at city or county meetings, she said.

She wishes there could be signs around Albert Lea and the surrounding cities with slogans like “Ridicule Free Zone,” “No Dissing Here,” and “U Matter.”

Ann Austin, director of United Way of Freeborn County, who is also one of the respect ambassadors, said respect is a concept she’s been exploring her whole life.

“What is respect?” Austin said. “We’re taught what respect is by our families, by our schools and at other places, but it really does take the whole community coming together.”

She said she believes having Operation Respect in the area will be a positive thing that will bring the community together.

Adults really play a role in children’s lives growing up, and what they see really impacts them, she said. Someone might be telling them to be respectful of their elders, but if elders aren’t being respectful to each other or to children, it’s hard for children to learn that principle.

“It’s hard to be respectful to someone that doesn’t respect you,” Austin said.

A lot of what respect is comes down to the language people use with each other and what people are comfortable with. People need to take others’ backgrounds into consideration as well.

Nelson said she knows the program is effective, as she’s heard stories of success from it already.

In one of the fifth-grade classes that the program was taught, Nelson said there was actually a fifth-grader who cried because of how he had been to his classmates.

The program will continue as long as there’s money to fund it and hopefully even after that, she said.

She hopes Operation Respect can be an added resource for good efforts that are already happening in the area.