``Before I joined SURE, I used to be a pretty narrow person. Most of my friends were just like me, and we never tried to understand people who were different from us,'' said Dana Gayeski, 15, a ninth grader at Paulsboro. ``But now, I have expanded myself. I have friends from all different backgrounds. I'm a more open person.''
SURE was created about 10 years ago after a group of African American students became concerned that cultural differences among the student body were not respected, said William A. Gaines, a Paulsboro art teacher and SURE faculty adviser.
``Initially, some people thought that the organization was only for African American students, but the purpose of SURE has always been to unite and enlighten all of the various groups in the school,'' said Gaines.
In the past year, SURE has had a speaker come in to talk to students about the Holocaust; an interracial couple discuss the prejudice they face; and a workshop on abusive behavior toward women.
``The workshops are great,'' said Jennie DiStefano, 17, a Paulsboro senior. ``You can ask people things that you never would under normal circumstances, and we always have great dialogues.''
According to DiStefano, some of the discussions engendered by the workshops, which are held several times a year, can be intense.
``Yeah. They are sometimes a little heated. People do get emotional,'' DiStefano said. ``But no one wants to leave angry. Lots of people stay after school and have follow-up conversations. People really do learn a lot.''
Several years ago, after some racial incidents occurred at several Gloucester County high schools, the county decided to make SURE programs mandatory in all county schools, said Kathy Carfagno, planning adviser for the county schools. In fact, said Carfagno, the county hopes to expand the scope of SURE to include fighting other stereotypes, such as about disabled or overweight people.
``We organize three SURE activities on a county-wide level every year,'' said Carfagno. ``We take a group camping in Medford Lakes in the fall and again in the spring, and we also invite four representatives from each school chapter to go to a leadership conference every summer.''
Although the county used aspects of other schools' diversity workshops to model its SURE program on, officials were particularly impressed with Paulsboro's initiatives at unifying its student body, said Gaines.
``There weren't too many other schools doing what we were doing,'' said Gaines. ``Our administration and faculty is really committed to making this program a success.''
Paulsboro principal LaGreta Brown said she believes that the program is a wonderful way to get youths to interact in positive and meaningful ways.
``I've met people in this program that I might not have ever associated with before,'' said Desmond Clayton, 16, a Paulsboro junior. ``People have to learn to look beyond external appearances.''