PITTSFORD — When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said he dreamed of black and white children someday walking together “as sisters and brothers” he may have had in mind the kind of work Gaynelle Wethers is doing.
Wethers, director of multicultural affairs at Nazareth College who’s also pastoral associate at Rochester’s Immaculate Conception Church, oversees “Building Bridges of Harmony,” a program slated to take place this year from Dec. 11-12. The program brings together more than 100 students in grades six through nine from area public and nonpublic schools, including Catholic ones, to discuss stereotypes of all kinds and ways to overcome them, Wethers said.
On May 31 Nazareth honored Wethers and her work at a surprise ceremony during which a scholar tree was planted on campus. Wethers said she was deeply moved by the ceremony.
“I was kind of overwhelmed,” she said. “I certainly didn’t expect it.”
Wethers said Building Bridges not only asks students what they’ve heard about people of different races, but also what they’ve heard about people who are different from them in other ways — people who wear glasses; who are of different sizes; or who believe in religions different from their own.
“If you can understand what the barriers are, then you know what strategies you can put in place to build those bridges,” she said.
Young people learn about stereotypes from the world around them, whether through the mass media or friends and family members, she added.
“Young people already know by kindergarten and first grade who’s in and who’s out,” she said. “We all have biases, but if we know we have them, we are less likely to hurt others with our words, actions and deeds.”
The students discuss strategies about coping with prejudice, she said, from standing up for someone who is being mistreated to refusing to share derogatory jokes about ethnic groups. Wethers added that she believes it is important to reach children at a young age because of what they might become as adults.
“Who knows, we might have a (future) president of the United States or senator sitting there,” she said. “Imagine the difference they could make in the community.”
Barbara Savage, a local composer, teaches the song “Builders of Bridges” to the children who participate in each year’s program. She noted that the song uses such words as “stepping stone” and “stumbling block” for a reason.
“I teach the children that basically there’s no neutral position … you’re either a stepping stone helping others along life’s way or stumbling block impeding their growth,” Savage said.
Betty Marian Anderson, past chairwoman of both Building Bridges and the Martin Luther King Jr. Greater Rochester Commission, said the Bridges program was founded by a group of institutional and community leaders more than 10 years ago. Each November students are invited to participate, she said. In December, Nazareth hosts the two-day Building Bridges conference and, over the next few months, children are asked to produce a project reflecting the conference theme. Projects have included essays, paintings, sculptures or videos, for which their creators are given such prizes as money or theater tickets. Each child also receives a certificate of recognition, Anderson said. In April, the children attend a corporate luncheon at the Hyatt Regency in Rochester, and in May, a reception at Nazareth is held for all children who produce projects, she added.
Anderson credited both Wethers and Nazareth College for supporting Building Bridges.
“Nazareth has really gone all out for this program,” she said, adding that Wethers has garnered program speakers and done presentations herself. “It wouldn’t have happened without her or Nazareth.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: For information on Building Bridges of Harmony, call Gaynelle Wethers at 585/389-2008 or e-mail her at email@example.com.