By Nancy KrizCENTRAL VALLEY — In what’s possibly being considered the first-of-its-kind student conference day in a New York State high school, Monroe-Woodbury High School officials have announced a fall event called “M-W CARES Day,” which will feature assemblies and workshops presented by more than 100 individuals and organizations who have positively affected others.It’s an ambitious undertaking designed to promote and reinforce compassion, acceptance, respect, empowerment and success - or CARES - throughout the Monroe-Woodbury community, according to committee members who have spent months putting a plan together, which will included nationally recognized speakers. “The high school strives to create a learning experience where all students can reach their full potential,” said Principal John Kaste. “Traditionally, this has been measured by academic success. Education is changing. With growing evidence to support social and emotional learning as ‘the missing piece’ to overall success, we feel that CARES Day will show our commitment to fully support our students’ needs by introducing speakers and topics that delve into aspects of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.”One day, 100 speakersThe day-long program on Oct. 28 will conclude the Red Ribbon Week events the district runs in all buildings. At the high school, classes will not be held that day. Instead, the focus will be on students attending keynote addresses, assemblies and workshops which model how professional conferences are organized and run. “Schools are becoming more committed to understanding the demand for developing strategies to incorporate social and emotional skills into curriculum,” Kaste said. “They often bring in a speaker or assembly program to meet this need. When envisioning CARES Day, we wanted to create a day devoted to this need. We felt a full-day for students to experience and hear very powerful and inspirational stories would truly let the students know we are committed to their emotional needs as well as academic needs.”Over the past months, event organizers have been developing plans for the day, which include the participation of more than 100 speakers. Providing the keynote address to freshmen and sophomores is former WWE Wrestling Champion Marc Mero, who will speak about bullying, peer pressure, substance abuse and suicide prevention. Mero reached the pinnacle of sports-entertainment success then lost it all. He will talk to students about the importance of their life choices. Former Miss USA Tara Conner is the keynote speakers for juniors and seniors. She will speak about addiction, stigmas and recovery. Conner is an actress, model and advocate who also competed in the Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe pageants. She’s also struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. ‘Uncensored, raw ... difficult stories’Organizers felt it was important to bring in speakers of a national caliber in addition to local and regional presenters. “We initially had the idea to bring in speakers that would represent each concept of our CARES meaning but we quickly realized that all of the speakers we talked to embodied all of the concepts,” said Dawn Tauber, M-W CARES chair. “The goal then became to have speakers who would resonate and connect with the students on a personal level. We didn’t want the presentations to include data and PowerPoints. We wanted presenters to share their personal, uncensored, raw and, in many instances, difficult stories. We felt that this was the way to reach the students that may be dealing with a similar situation that might not be apparent and silently suffering or perhaps feeling ‘alone.’” Workshop presenters will share their experiences with alcohol and drug dependence and subsequent recovery, growing up in “dysfunction,” being victims of bullying, child abuse or sexual abuse, as parents of children who committed suicide, living with AIDS or depression, overcoming physical handicaps and birth defects, surviving cancer, being severely burned or in an accident, dealing with the consequences of life-altering mistakes and many more.The lessons of survivorsSpeakers will also include survivors or families of the deceased of U.S. and foreign acts of terrorism, U.S. mass shootings and genocidal mass slaughter, including the Rwandan Genocide and the Holocaust.There will be speakers who are Sept. 11, survivors, parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook, a Boston Marathon bombing survivor, a Virginia Tech shooting survivor, an Israeli suicide bomber survivor, an Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting survivor, a family member of the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting and Holocaust survivors and liberators, among others.Like a national conference, students will be given the opportunity to pick the workshops they are interested in attending. “These are hard stories to tell and to hear but they are stories and experiences that need to be shared and heard,” said Tauber. “It is our intent that the stories will empower our youth and increase their social and emotional strength. Hopefully the speakers’ experiences will help them face their own struggles or challenges and open a dialogue about their feelings or situation.” It was important the selected speakers have the ability to inspire compassion and empathy in students. “Emotional maturity, empathy, and other interpersonal skills are crucial to shaping who you become and they can be learned,” she added. ImmersionKaste felt the high school community would embrace a day like this. “For students, it’s a day to be immersed in stories and messages that will shape their views and feelings,” he said. “We felt a full-day for students to experience and hear very powerful and inspirational stories would truly let the students know we are committed to their emotional needs as well as academic needs.”He hoped educators would find the day to be one which helps them build on their roles of inspiring and readying students to develop interpersonal skills needed for lifelong success. “We hope this day encourages other schools to also meet the growing need for our youth to gain greater social and emotional competence and to feel empowered to cultivate compassion, integrity and make positive contributions to society,” he added. Tauber agreed, noting a day like this overdue.“As our world grows more complex and our communities more fragmented, we feel M-W CARES Day is ‘a need’ more than ‘a want,’” she said. “The need to include our valued concepts.... compassion, acceptance, respect, empowerment and success in their everyday lives and to carry them forward into our community and beyond.” District officials felt pulling students out of classes for a day like this is justified because of the significance of the topics to be discussed. “Schools are becoming more committed to understanding the demand for developing strategies to incorporate social and emotional skills into curriculum,” said Kaste. “We wanted a day devoted to this need. It is our hope that the overarching message of the day is that Monroe-Woodbury High School recognizes the importance of our students’ emotional wellness, social connectivity, and our need to foster resilience and compassion. We feel that CARES Day is deserving of the attention, time and economic resources needed to demonstrate this commitment.” Editor’s note: In support of Monroe-Woodbury High School’s initiative to promote and reinforce compassion, acceptance, respect, empowerment and success, The Photo News will run periodic stories leading up to the Oct. 28 M-W CARES Day.