Skip to main content

South Jordan Journal

Golden Gate club founder honored by state PTA for making difference in students’ lives

Apr 03, 2022 06:53PM ● By Julie Slama

Bingham High hall monitor Jo Ward, who recently received a state PTA award, started the Golden Gate club, a pro-social club that promoted kindness and connectivity. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Wearing a black-and-white “Stay Kind” Golden Gate club shirt, Bingham High’s hall monitor was honored at the capitol with the inaugural Utah PTA Forces for Good award.

Jo Ward stood in front of a crowd, including more than 100 students who would sing one of her Golden Gate songs, to address students.

“It’s so important that kids understand you are the future, and as I look out over all of you, it gives me hope because we need forces of good in our schools, in our communities, in our homes,” she said. “We need kindness. Kindness can heal the world.”

Ward, who is known fondly in the Bingham halls as Momma Jo, was preparing a presentation of “The Power of a Smile,” part of the core fundamentals of her club, when her parents nudged her and said, ‘You’re getting an award.’

“Kids were coming in, and the way the capitol echoes, I didn’t hear it because I was in the back,” she said. “I knew we were having a program; I didn’t know it was an awards program. It’s just an honor being able to do what I do. It’s all about loving kids.”

The state PTSA student committee nominated those in the community who set an example as a force for good, said Todd Hougaard, Utah PTA student leadership commissioner.

“They hope others can see what a force for good really looks like and they can try to emulate it,” he said. “If anyone knows Jo, she’s always bubbly, always excited, always smiling.”

That’s not only who she is, but what she stands for, Hougaard said.

“There’s a statewide SHARP survey (Student Health and Risk Prevention survey given every two years to measure substance use, anti-social behavior, and the risk factors that predict adolescent problem behaviors),” he said. “And one thing that we learned is students need to feel connected to their school, to their friends and family, because when they’re not connected is when they do risky behaviors. Golden Gate that Jo started is a great program for helping students feel connected.”

The Golden Gate club started in 2016 when 417 students signed the pledge.

It began after Ward and former Bingham High Assistant Principal Mike Hughes saw firsthand the power of connection.

Hughes received a phone call from a parent saying her daughter, Tiffany Osborne, a senior at the time, had no friends, never went to any activities and just came home and went to bed. The parent told Hughes that “her daughter didn’t want to be here anymore,” Ward recalled.

At the same time, another senior, cheerleader Savannah Vigil, would isolate herself, hiding out in the parking lot. She got to know Hughes and realized his office was a safe place.

“Kids used to think Savannah was stuck up because she would isolate herself because she couldn’t see anybody because she was visually impaired,” Ward said. “They didn’t know that. Kids don’t understand why students struggle connecting and a lot of them is because they have unseen disabilities. The same is true of Tiffany. She had dyspraxia that affects her motor skills. She struggled writing, and kids would shun her.”

Ward introduced the two, and two weeks later, they were walking down the hall together.

“Tiffany started showing up at activities; they started going to the mall together and having fun,” Ward said. “Savannah was collecting blankets for the homeless, and she involved Tiffany. They built this amazing friendship and still are best friends six years later.”

Soon after, Osborne’s parent came into the office and said, “Savannah saved my daughter’s life,” Ward said. “Then I saw them coming in the hall; they were laughing, and we all hugged. That’s when I realized these two girls literally were transformed, and that’s when I told Mike we need to do what we sent Savannah to do.”

With Hughes’ support, they formed a club.

“Jo and I started recruiting kids, the kind of student leaders who would be able to make the club be visible to everyone else; we told the kids, ‘We need you, not you need us,’ and the club grew, and we had several hundred members,” he said.

Ward wrote the concept: “It was how do we connect students, how do we help them find friends, how do they learn to make healthy positive connections, how do we teach the soft skills they need?”

They decided to name it after the Golden Gate Bridge, partly because “it was built to connect isolated communities, and our agenda was to combat loneliness and isolation with our kids,” Ward said. “But also, because there’s a story of a man who was on his way to Golden Gate Bridge who said, ‘If one person smiles at me on the way, I won’t jump.’ That’s why it’s so important to smile; even with a mask, your eyes can smile. The smile is so powerful. Students say it feels amazing to be smiled at; they know they’re seen, they’re acknowledged, they’re valued.”

Hughes wrote the first 10 points of the club, which later were tweaked with input from students and educators.

“My favorite is ‘I will strive to make someone’s day every day’ because by doing that, you make your own day,” Hughes said. “When you strive to make someone’s day, it’s almost impossible not to get a positive response. Kids are dealing with a lot, depression, suicide ideation, and more. And by striving to make someone’s day, giving them a compliment, making a friend, sitting with them at lunch, it’s almost impossible for them not to feel a little better and for you, not to feel bad yourself.”

Ward said that students walk by the pledge banner and join.

“They say, ‘I will be that person,’ which is our slogan,” she said. “When a student takes the pledge, it’s a personal promise. I tell students to find two points of the pledge, one they love and one that they need to work on and practice implementing those two. When we started, we looked at kindness, inclusivity, positivity, smiling, helpfulness, sharing, knowledge and a whole myriad of values and virtues under pro-social behaviors and we’re like that’s it. That’s what we are—a pro-social club and it’s all in our pledge; You don’t see many programs promoting kindness and pro-social behaviors and that is actually what we need.”

Hughes said at the time, he was dealing with students who were “isolated, misbehaving because they’re sad, angry, depressed, felt hopeless. We found that a lot of bullies don’t know they’re bullies. That’s the only way they know how to connect.”

Even now, he said the need is great.

“I think kids always have struggled, but the struggle now is because we have things like cyberbullying and lack of connection,” he said. “Some of the texts, tweets, social media is horrible; it’s a venue for the most, darkest emotional communication I’ve ever seen. I think we all know that the COVID lockdown added more isolation and lack of connection. We need socialization to be mentally healthy.”

Ward agrees.

 “Now with COVID, there’s more need,” she said. “Our researcher came to Bingham and asked students their top 10 concerns, and No. 1 was social anxiety. Kids just need positive, pro-social connections.”

Before the pandemic, Hughes said he had “14 students who said they are alive today because of this one club at Bingham; our aim is different than Hope Squad. We are open to everybody, and our scope isn’t suicide prevention, it’s pro-social behaviors and kindness.”

Ward said interest in the club grew, so in 2018, she created a nonprofit, and on the board of directors sits students, educators and researchers, who all are dedicated to establishing a kindergarten through high school senior curriculum, which already has more than 400 lessons and is about a year way from being completed.

Already there is a Golden Gate Kids version, with a simplified pledge and lesson plans for at school and at home for the elementary schools—and a few middle schools also have incorporated the curriculum. It’s in more than 35 schools stretching from South Carolina to California.

“We’ve gone into elementary schools with Golden Gate Kids and teach the ripple of kindness activity,” Ward said. “We throw a blade of grass into a pail of water, and then the kids can see those slight ripples still makes a difference. Then, each student throws one in and they understand how that’s kindness spreads.”

The two original high school seniors are active, as are others at Bingham High and the community.

“It’s been a collective effort of educators coming together to build this program,” she said. “Our tagline is Golden Gate is inspired by students, built by educators, backed by research. It’s amazing when you get an idea in your head. It’s not a ripple I ever saw happening. It’s just been gaining momentum; in the past six years, close to 80,000 students participate and sign the pledge.”

Former Bingham Principal Chris Richards-Khong said it’s because of Ward and Hughes that students have a place to connect.

“They saw a need and developed it into a place where students connect,” Richards-Khong said. “I think what makes Jo so powerful is when kids call her Momma Jo. She has been there for all of them. She has a big heart and is a good friend to kids. Then, she took it further with Golden Gate, and that has built a positive culture at the school.”

Ward said when students “really grasp onto the concept of what inclusiveness looks like and what kindness and all those things look like, it just starts to help them become who they are. Most kids need to be loved and need to feel connected so every day, that’s what I do, I see these kids, I let them know I see you; I love you and hope you know your value. I always want these kids to know their worth and that they’re loved. Just that much will turn it around for a kid. I see it day in and day out. “

Hughes said that describes just who she is.

“Jo is a person who just loves you,” he said. “No matter who the person is, she just loves them.”

With the presentation of the Newton’s cradle, the Utah PTA award Ward received, Hougaard said it was to signify the effect of one person.

“Like this cradle, their work keeps momentum, keeps changing people, long after the initial impact,” he said. “And that’s Jo.”

In years past, Ward also has received the National Spirit of Inclusion and 13 Most Influential Women for Humanitarian Service.

“The awards are one thing, but those awards don’t signify a payday to me,” she said. “My payday is when a kid comes up and tells me, ‘Momma Jo, this year is the first year I haven’t been bullied all my life.’ That’s my payday. When I hear students say this club saved my life, then I know my work is rewarding. The awards are great, but at the end of the day, that’s why I’m doing it.”