When it comes to changing the lives of others, 17-year-old Katie Bonti is starting out small and betting on the ripple effect.
"Who knows what's going on in anyone's day?" she said. "Sometimes you're just having a really bad day. Just one person saying something nice can make a difference, and then maybe you'll say something nice to someone else."
Smiley-face stickers, Post-it notes and a few kind words directed at someone else are the basic ingredients she has scrambled together to initiate a mood-lifting movement at Wiregrass Ranch High School.
SMILE — or "Student Messages Inspiring Lasting Esteem" — is the name of the club Katie founded this year after mulling it over during the summer. Basic etiquette and kindness are often lacking, and she wanted to do something about it. Katie, who is the daughter of principal Ray Bonti, has turned out to be quite the leader in her own right, leading meetings, coming up with icebreaker activities and recruiting close to 40 members who have climbed on board to spread a message of general kindness.
"Everybody's different. Everybody's wonderful in their own way," said Katie, who easily persuaded advanced placement and honors chemistry teacher Nicholas Cuviello to come on as a sponsor for the club. "It's high school so we're an eclectic group and that's good. But I think today, especially with social media, there's a message that it's okay to be mean to other people, that it's okay to be rude."
"It's not," she said. "Everybody matters."
To show them how much, members of SMILE have been handing out smiley face stickers when they see someone on campus committing a random act of kindness and penning compliments to others on Post-it notes that are displayed on a bulletin board outside Cuviello's classroom.
"I think it's a great idea. I like that it's simple," Cuviello said. "I think that any time somebody gives you a compliment it makes you feel better about yourself."
"This isn't a popularity contest, and that's why I monitor the board," said Katie, who during last week's meeting reinforced the idea to members that the ripple effect would only grow if they moved outside their own circle of friends.
"You rock," "I like your shirt," and "You're so smart," were some of the messages directed at individually named students who might pass by the board during their school day. Others were compliments of the random sort.
"Thank you for holding the door for me when I was late," was the note Julie Diaz penned to a student she didn't know.
"I like that anybody could read this note and maybe think it was them and it might make them feel good," Julie said. "I think that self-esteem is something a lot of people lack, especially in high school where things like cutting and bulimia can be a problem. I think random people complimenting you can be uplifting for anybody."
And maybe create a safe haven, too.
"I like telling people that they're smart or nice, especially people who don't treat me like a freak," said Yasmeen Wilson, 17. She said she joined the club because "I thought it would be a nice way to meet nice people. I'm kind of sensitive, so when people are minor-league rude, I really notice it, so I thought maybe here I could escape that."
"I just felt like this would match my personality," added Andy Filgueira, 17. "I've never seen something like this done before. I think her ideas are pretty big — groundbreaking — and I think it's going to have a positive effect."