In February of 2021, Morningside Elementary School held a virtual talent show. Third grader Stephan chose to share two poems by Mattie J.T. Stepanek – “A New Hope” and “On Being a Champion”. His passion for Mattie’s messages is evident, and his teacher, Alba Romero, is the reason why. First Peace Certified in 2014, Alba continues planning for peace at Morningside each year, emphasizing how each child can seek, make, and bring peace to themselves, their families, and their community.

Alba saw during the 2013-2014 school year that her students needed to have a kid hero – someone they could relate to. Many of her “kids” were dealing with challenges, both at home and at school. After seeing Mattie Stepanek on the Oprah Winfrey show, she began thinking about how Mattie’s messages might inspire them to believe in their dreams and have hope.

Alba introduced Mattie to her students using his books, information and video links from the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation website, poetry readings, and conversation and discussion. They students learned about Mattie as a person, and as a poet and writer, and as an advocate for peace. Alba reached out to Mattie’s mom, Jeni, to share the activities that she and her class had been inspired to undertake. Jeni responded immediately, and after learning that most of the students were Spanish speaking, invited them to help her improve her Spanish skills. They began exchanging emails in both English and Spanish as Alba helped the students with their letter-writing skills. The students also sent a package of letters they had penned in Spanish to Jeni, along with their artwork.

Becoming inspired to increase the impact of Mattie’s message even more, Alba happened upon a publishing website, and an idea was born. The students created a “hero tribute book” by writing letters explaining what they had learned from Mattie. The children also shared Mattie’s message with their family. Alba has continued to cultivate what she started by having her new crop of students learn about Mattie and publish their own class hero book each year. A highlight of each year is the “Mama Peace Chat” that Jeni Stepanek has with each year’s class.

Alba shared that the children talk often about what would Mattie think, say, or do in certain situations. “I believe that Mattie’s hope and messages are guiding them to make more positive decisions in their own lives,” she said. “It is a win-win to have this program in our school, so that we can continue to cultivate the seeds of peace that have been sown here and see these children grow up to be peacemakers in their own families and communities. It is a highlight of my job as a teacher to share Mattie’s messages with them.”