Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
Kaylen Gehrke strives to create a safe, positive and welcoming environment by being an advocate for self-empowerment groups at her high school and in her community, but her drive comes from feeling and experiencing the exact opposite. Through being positive and welcoming to everyone she meets, Gehrke attempts to make a difference. She says, “I want to get people to feel like they matter.” She succeeds in doing just that and more.
Gehrke is very involved at Golden High School. She has continuously won second place at a state competition for literature by submitting original poems. She is Student Council President, a member of choir, National Honor Society and takes all honors and advanced placement courses. Despite her busy schedule, Gehrke’s main goal is to make a difference and change at least one person’s life.
Despite her shy nature, Gehrke is on a mission to change Golden High School for the better. Through an organization called “Day Without Hate,” she plans activities and opportunities for students to dedicate one day during the school year to focus on positivity and treating everyone with kindness. Her mother, Betsy Gehrke, states, “I have seen her outwardly display random acts of kindness, inclusion, and be a positive role model to her younger peers in high school.” Gehrke learned about “Day Without Hate” in middle school and she realized that the message the organization was spreading was vital for all students to hear. The organization started in Colorado after the shooting at Virginia Tech occurred in April 2007. Years previous to Gehrke’s attendance at Golden High School, the program took place annually, but it was not a large event. When Gehrke began her high school career in 2013, she decided that students needed to be more excited about the program and to look forward to the event every year. Gehrke made this her mission, and this motivation to do so came from feelings of isolation and sadness.
Although she is very involved in activities at school and attempts to make others’ lives better, Gehrke has struggled with depression and self-harm. Over the last few years, she has gotten help, learned to be happy with herself and also started to see the joy in simple moments. Through this experience, Gehrke began to actively participate and realize the importance of the message “A Day Without Hate” spreads. She is very passionate about another organization called “To Write Love on Her Arms.” The aim of this organization is to give hope and help to people suffering with depression and self-harm. At a rally for “To Write Love on Her Arms,” Gehrke met the founder of the organization, Jamie Tworkowski, who signed a t-shirt for her and wrote the message “Hope :)” on it. This encounter made her want to continue spreading the message. Gehrke has realized that even helping one person makes a difference and that her experience motivates her to continue making a change.
Despite her personal struggle, Gehrke successfully lead annual programs for “A Day Without Hate” throughout her high school career. Participating in this organization helped her get involved and made her feel as if she was making a difference. Next school year, she is attending the University of Montana and is looking to study forensic science, journalism or language. Her ultimate goal in life is to change at least one person’s life in this world. As she is preparing for her collegiate career, Gehrke always reflects on and remembers her favorite quote, from Robin Williams, which is, “ No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”