The Fairfield University Social Work Club rallied the local community to combat social isolation and prevent gun violence through the “Start with Hello” 5K hosted on Sunday, Oct. 1. 

The “Start with Hello” program is a weeklong call-to-action spearheaded by Sandy Hook Promise, a national non-profit organization founded by family members whose loved ones lost their lives in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14, 2012. 

In 2018, social work students began their efforts to uphold their mission of empowerment and inclusivity at Fairfield. These efforts stemmed from the devastating number of shootings that occurred in 2017. 

Director of Undergraduate Social Work Kim Oliver, Ph.D. considered how her students’ reactions to the deadly massacre in Las Vegas, Nev. in Oct. 2017 inspired their involvement with the “Start with Hello” initiative. 

“The following week, students in my social work class raised the issue and spoke about how sad and disgusted they were that we lived in a society that allowed such violence,” Oliver shared. 

A month later, another shooting occurred at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

“Again, my students raised the issue and we spoke about the role of social workers and the response of the profession to the ongoing violence in our nation.” 

During the spring semester of 2018, Oliver recalled that the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School solidified her students’ drive to take action. 

“I told them that I thought social workers could advocate for common sense laws, use our clinical skills to help trauma victims and I found myself saying, ‘I don’t know what to do, but if you can do something I will cancel the final exam’.” 

“That was the beginning,” Oliver declared. “Students organized an event, News 12 came, people learned and vowed to continue the fight.” 

Today, “Start with Hello” week has become an annual tradition that has cultivated positivity and garnered thousands of dollars in donations. 

Students who are actively involved in the program will be excused from the final exam, as they will be able to demonstrate their knowledge of social work in a real-world context.

Sophomore Grace Nieszczezewski, a student currently enrolled in Oliver’s “Social Work: An Introduction” course, expressed that her decision to join “Start with Hell0” stretched beyond an academic obligation. 

“I wanted to take a leadership role in this project in order to raise awareness surrounding the effects of gun violence in youth populations but also to let people know that they are not alone,” she said.

Moreover, Nieszczezewski believes that “many problems can be resolved with kindness and a simple hello. I don’t think enough people realize that.”

At Sunday’s event, a crowd of nearly 200 students filled the RecPlex Field House and listened as Alexandra Lecher ‘24 introduced the event. 

“Nearly 11 years ago, we lost 20 children and six adults in the Sandy Hook school shooting,” she acknowledged.

“These children were daughters, sons, grandchildren, friends, teammates, and siblings. Each and everyone had an entire world of existence created around them. On Dec. 14, 2012, these worlds were shattered with the senseless pull of a trigger,” Lecher stated in somber remembrance. 

Lecher, a senior social work student, recognized that “these children are only some of the 43,000 Americans killed by gun violence each year, from community violence, mass shootings, domestic violence, gun suicide and various other tragedies.”

She characterized the program as a defining opportunity “to create one community where hope outweighs fear, inclusivity outweighs adversity, and empathy outweighs hostility” where no more “beautiful lives [will be] cut short and … forever altered by unimaginable grief.”

Fairfield’s First Selectwoman Brenda L. Kupchick attended the event and further emphasized the motivation behind the race, underscoring the reverberating effect of a tragedy that hits close to home. 

She reflected on the legislative implications of the Sandy Hook shooting, as “lawmakers were called upon to come up with laws that would address mental health and gun safety in school.” 

Kupchick noted that, as a state representative at the time, she witnessed the raw emotion of her colleagues “who met with all of the families who lost their children or loved ones on that horrible day.” 

“It’s beyond just laws,” she declared. “We need to look at the individuals, the people who might feel isolated or disconnected from their community.” 

Fueled by Lecher and Kupchick’s powerful sentiments, the runners hit the pavement for their 3.1-mile loop across campus. 

Volunteers were stationed along the route, providing refreshments and holding up handmade signs to advertise the “Start with Hello” program. 

Junior Angeline Miraglia examined the role of social workers in raising “awareness for current issues, such as social isolation, through a compassionate and understanding lens.”

As an upper-class student in the social work program, Miraglia understands that “it is critical for social workers to uphold the dignity and worth of humanity.” 

She continued, “Using a social work approach, individuals are called to be advocates for change and can empower others to do the same, whether they are social workers or not.”

Ultimately, the 5k raised $1,591 in donations, which will be used to finance ‘Start with Hello’ programs and start SAVE (Students Against Violence Everywhere) Clubs at middle and high schools. 

The Sandy Hook Promise website outlines three guiding action steps: “See Someone Alone, Reach Out and Help and Start with Hello.” 

In her closing statement, Lecher voiced, “I, along with Sandy Hook Promise advocates, work every day to keep anyone else from experiencing the gut-wrenching grief that preventable gun violence brings. Today, I am starting with hello.” 

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