WESLEY CHAPEL — Sometimes, diversity can be a unifying factor — particularly when there's a chance to see beyond what separates one from the group.
That's part of the focus of Unity Day, an annual celebration that was held last week in the gymnasium at Wiregrass Ranch High School.
About 170 students attended the event, which took place during morning and afternoon sessions, hosted by the school's Unity Club.
The idea is to build a sense of community in the school and to provide a forum and safe place for people of all stripes to talk and feel valued, said club president Emma Weiss, 18.
"We want them to know they have a place here — that they are loved for their uniqueness, that it's okay to be different," Weiss said.
The day commenced just after 7:30 a.m. with an icebreaker activity — the kind that had students discovering their similarities, whether it be their tastes in music, movies, sports, the arts, food or soft drinks.
Then it was time for some heavier stuff.
Over the course of a few hours, students had the opportunity to join in four different discussion groups facilitated by Unity Club members and teachers. Most groups entwined education with a hands-on activity and some thoughtful talk. Topics covered included faith, building self-confidence, mental illness, coming out, dating safety, body shaming, gender inequality and family dynamics.
English teacher Brittnay Doane said she was more than happy to serve as a facilitator for an event that brought her back to her own high school days.
"We did something similar when I was in school," Doane said. "I love the idea because, especially in high school, people tend to focus on their differences. It helps students get to know each other, even if they're not in the same cliques. It's a safe space for students to be able to share."
Club member Garrett Dimitras, 16, who has a learning disability that makes it difficult to complete class work in a timely manner, helped facilitate the discussion on mental illness.
"I've made so many new friends," Dimitras said. "This club brings people and cultures together that you wouldn't think. We really do unite people."
During a group discussion about body shaming, newcomer Chris Mendez, 15, who recently moved to Pasco from Broward County, shared his experience of being bullied as a youngster.
"I feel you should love yourself whether you're fat or skinny. God made you the way you are," Mendez advised regarding how to silence the critic in your own head.
"I really like this; it helps people's self-esteem," Mendez said, giving a shout-out to his parents for being supportive throughout his own struggles. "People like me that have past experiences can talk about them here and don't have to worry about being judged or picked on. This shows you that there's always an adult you can talk to. There's always a brighter day."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.