One Vision, One Voice, One Stingray Family
By Jacie Elizabeth Millen Photography by Jnan Marie Tierney
Walking through the halls of Hilton Head Island Middle School, I could feel a sense of warmth, a feeling of spirit swaying in the hallway. This school has life to it, and you could tell it wasn’t just the students bringing it to the table.
Meeting with Neodria Brown, the respected and loved principal at the school, was inspiring. She was honorable in showing how much she cares for this school. Neodria started breaking down the stereotypes of Hilton Head Middle when she said, “Middle school is one of the toughest times a person goes through, whether it be puberty, or just trying to transition from elementary school and getting ready for high school. There are pockets of poverty and pockets of wealth on Hilton Head, and here at school, we welcome the diversity of children and make them feel like they are worthy, uniting them as a Stingray family.”
Neodria can’t stop raving about the Stingray Support Circle. When I asked her what the support circle does for the school, her response was, “The bigger question is, what don’t they do for this school?” When talking about the support circle, I wondered how much or how important parent involvement was, not just with this group but in the academia as a whole. Neodria said, “A child’s first teacher is his or her parents. I can speak for every school in Beaufort county; we focus on the whole child, and for us to do our jobs well, everyone who invests or impacts a child, they must be involved, not just parents but the community. If you live in Beaufort County, our schools should be a part of your focus, these kids are our future.”
I started chatting with Shannon Bedenbaugh, a parent volunteer who founded the Stingray Support Circle and leads all of the events. She said, “Not a lot of people know what’s going on inside these schools. Elementary, middle, high school, in every school there are children struggling. What I found was a need here; over 40 percent of students at HHI Middle are on free and reduced lunch. Children will go home over the weekends and won’t eat until Monday morning at school. Children don’t come prepared to take on the school day as they should.”
Shannon conveyed her love and compassion for the school, teachers and children. “Our main objective is for every child to come through school doors, ready to focus on what they need to get done, rather than being bothered with a dirty uniform, or if they don’t have enough food to eat.” Following an example of a Christmas event at Hilton Head Island High and tuning into her faith, Shannon started the support circle, creating a safe and fun place for students to get help. Kids go to Stingray Support to receive snacks, school uniforms, book bags and little miscellaneous things students could need during the school day. Their snack buddy program is based off a point system with the staff members. They can get snacks to eat at school or take home, because sometimes breakfast or lunch isn’t enough. “Kids these days just need so much more food, especially if they are active. If you think about it, how can a child focus in class when they are hungry?”— said Jeanine Clark, a parent volunteer and Shannon’s right hand at Support Circle. Jeanine, having two children at the middle school, stepped in to help Shannon fulfill her hope for this program.
Most snacks, uniforms and book bags are donations from the community or parent volunteers. Parents will bring in uniforms from their child’s middle school days, or when a child is sent home with a shirt from us, the parent will usually bring it back, washed the next day. Shannon also teamed up in a great partnership with Lowcountry Dress for Success, which donates new uniforms to the circle. Children aren’t the only ones grateful for this program; some parents will bring back gift cards saying, “Thank you for taking care of my son or daughter.” They repurposed a large storage closet in the gym into a boutique-like room, with a dressing room tent and trendy decorations, so students feel comfortable coming to them for help and not feel like they are getting a handout.
“This support system isn’t just for the children in need at this school, it’s for every child,” said Shannon. “We are here to support these children while making an impact on them as well,” added Neodria.
“You could say that it’s just a shirt or just a pair of pants, but I believe it helps the kids. I helped a girl this morning who was looking super cute but not wearing her uniform. She was with her friends, and not knowing that this was here, she got excited. I got her a collared shirt and she went back to class. This was great because her mom didn’t have leave work to come to the school, or she didn’t have to get a referral for being out of uniform. There is no reason for a child to be getting a referral for a uniform problem any longer. It truly takes a village,” Jeanine said. Neodria added, “This support system has truly helped have an impact on the children’s self esteem.”
Two special events the Stingray Support Circle have hosted touched the hearts of Shannon, Neodria, Jeanine and many people in the community. This past Christmas, they opened-up the school auditorium and filled it with donations of anything you can think of: Clothes; shoes; blankets; school supplies and bags. Students came in with their families and “shopped” for presents for their parents and siblings.
After Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the amount of people in need on Hilton Head was revealed. People were stuck with no homes or furniture. Connecting with more than 200 people through emails and Facebook, donations came flowing in. “People were without furniture, mattresses and basic needs. We got the word out, and collected the mattresses needed for those families within the week. It showed us how fast this caring community came together,” Shannon said.
“Everyone has a circle of influence. People think it’s so hard to get involved in the community. People are either too busy, or there is need somewhere else. Every day small circles of influence surround us, whether it's at work, in our social circle, or where our children or grandchildren go to school. People should stop and take in their personal circle to see what difference they can make in the community,” Shannon said. “If people have something on their heart, they should have no fear and just do it. Start with baby steps; this program started from baby steps and has grown into something I could have never imagined.”
You Can Help: Please donate Walmart, Walgreens, CVS, McDonald’s, Wendy’s or Subway gift cards in increments of $5, or call Hilton Head Middle and talk to Shannon Bedenbaugh about other needs: 843-689-4500.