Photos by Rome City Schools

Finding meaning in the crests and troughs of life in middle school can often be as hard as trying to find a needle in a haystack. Those of us who have fought through this storm of emotions, hormones, social awkwardness and self-doubt often had the help of a life jacket to stay afloat. For the lucky among us, that life jacket comes in the form of a loving family, friends and mentors who hold us in the road and serve as our training wheels when our bikes are not so steady, when our paths are filled with hazards, when our way is foggy and hard to find.

Rome Middle School has implemented a way for community leaders to step in and be the lighthouse many adolescents need to cross the choppy water near the edge of high school’s landing. Habitudes, a mentoring program adopted by Rome Middle School, uses images to relay leadership traits, healthy habits and good attitudes to their students, making school a safe harbor for the young vessels who will carry us into the future with hope and compassion.

Dr. Tim Elmore is the president of Growing Leaders, a non-profit organization based in Atlanta, Ga. that is committed to helping young people become leaders who serve with compassion and problem-solving skills. Dr. Elmore has written over 30 books to assist people with the tools necessary to become leaders and helpful members of society. He has also developed the lesson plans for Habitudes, a program anyone can use and—based on research—most kids respond to well.

“By using Habitudes, we can work with adolescents age 12-21 and use a visual image to remind them of a lesson they’ve learned,” said Julie Smith, Community Relations Coordinator for Rome City Schools. “We have around 30 slots that we would like to fill with community leaders who can commit to one class a month for 45 minutes to an hour at Rome Middle School.”

This generation is highly visual when it comes to learning and retaining information. Apps like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter have made the way the younger generation digests information a challenge to teach in the classroom and Habitudes provides the visual elements needed to drive home life skills that soften the sting of adolescence.

Smith also explained that Habitudes was designed for teachers to add to their classroom curriculum, but Tashia Twyman and Kirsten Thornante, both of whom work in Central Office with community relations, decided to invite local clergy, coaches, politicians, social workers and anyone else who wished to offer their experiences to children as a life example.

Thornante, RCS System Social Worker, said, “Last year we focused on the art of self leadership and this year we will focus on connecting with others. We have implemented the program differently in Rome City Schools than many other programs. If a student was with us for both seventh and eighth grades they get both of these lessons. To make sure we are all doing the same lesson on the same day, we do not teach the lesson based on grade level. Our hope is that we can provide consistency with the posters we place around the school as visual reinforcements, therefore driving home each session our community leaders have with the students.”

“We have our students together in class, so this is a perfect chance to offer mentoring services to them,” Smith added. “We carefully screen anyone who is interested in teaching Habitudes and we give them all of the resources they would need. We have online materials, such as clips from popular movies, activities and games that we can play with our students, which relate to the lessons and all with only a commitment of roughly one hour per month. It is really a small amount of time to give for such a huge benefit to our students.

Stephen Daniel is an associate pastor for Cornerstone Church, and he learned about Habitudes via email. Rome City Schools made a major push to sign up mentors and Daniel answered the call.

“I wanted to help in any way I could. Whether that was mentoring a kid, coming out to speak to them or even washing dishes for them, it really didn’t matter. I just wanted to get involved,” Daniel said.

Daniel mentions the small time investment verses the huge reward he receives when working with Habitudes and helping the students at Rome Middle.

“The material is simple, plain and straight-forward and the students really grasp the simplicity of it. By teaching these lessons hope I have really been able to help change their lives,” Daniel smiled.

Gina Byars, Human Resources Coordinator for Rome City Schools, also signed on with Habitudes, and for a much more personal reason.

“I thoroughly enjoyed teaching Habitudes. As I was leaving today, a young man who has not said one word since I started teaching the class, reached out and touched my arm and asked me if I was really only coming one more time this year,” said Byars after teaching one of the last classes in the 2017-18 school year. “I wanted to cry. I really did. I told him I was coming back one more time and I thought they only liked me because I bring treats. But now I know it is more than that.”

Byars went on to explain a few times in her adult life when she could have applied lessons in the Habitudes book. Because of the support from her family and the motivation of having these skills passed to her earlier in life, she finished her college degree later in life. As her eyes welled with tears, so did her appreciation of not only what she was able to give to the students, but also what they were able to give to her.

Rome Middle needs more mentors. They would like to grow the program to capacity and implement other groups in other places. For information about how to get involved, contact Julie Smith at

Gregory Wooten, Executive Director of Communities in Schools for Rome and Floyd County, has a few things volunteers should know if they are interested in becoming a Habitudes instructor or if they just want to mentor children who attend any Rome City School.

“Community members who would like to get involved will have to attend a training which last for about an hour and a half,” said Wooten. “During this training we discuss things like confidentiality and we complete any needed paperwork, including a background check that is free of charge. We even provide lunch for all applicants to show our appreciation for their interest. What is also great is this certification lasts for three years, so applicants won’t have to attend this training every year. We would love to see all community leaders come out and support our local schools.”

“We started Habitudes last year and we approached it from the perspective of an advisement period,” said Dr. Christy Epps, Assistant Principal for Rome Middle School. “Our advisement groups are very small so it was the perfect chance to form relationships with the students in the room. Essentially, whoever is with these children during the advisement period becomes their advocate. Allowing mentors to teach Habitudes in this space has been a natural fit and we love it. I think our students have enjoyed Habitudes the most with the mentors who have found a common element with their class. We want to teach the whole character of a child and not just focus on education. Habitudes helps us to teach better students and the lessons enhance the high-quality education we strive to offer.”