A group of students hold notes they left on people's cars

Students in the Smile Club at McCracken County High School left encouraging notes on people’s cars. Submitted photo

Content warning: This article discusses suicide. If you or anyone you know is struggling, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Creating a space to discuss mental health and encourage students to have a positive impact on their peers is just one of the many reasons Bre Sy​kes-Podunajec, a family resource director at McCracken County High School, initiated the Smile Club.

The Smile Club came about after Sykes-Podunajec heard an inspirational talk by the founder of the Rae of Sunshine Foundation, Taylora Schlosser, who discussed her daughter’s battle with mental health and encouraged others to be a “Rae” of sunshine in the world. Schlosser’s daughter, Taylor Rae Nolan, who would have been 23 years old in April, took her life in 2019 while attending the University of Kentucky.

“I feel like people think the signs are obvious and they’re really not,” said Sykes-Podunajec. “As an educator, she’s made it her mission to go out and speak to schools about mental health and stigmas around mental health and how if you’re struggling, it’s okay to ask for help.”

Sy​kes-Podunajec had a representative from the nonprofit speak to her students at McCraken County High School and she said it left an impression on many of them. She said numerous students came to her after the assembly to discuss the impact of having the foundation speak to their classmates and the importance of discussing mental health within their schools.

Shortly after, Sy​kes-Podunajec started to get information on the Smile Club out to the students within the lunchroom. Smile Club is an initiative that stems from the nonprofit to promote positivity in schools and reduce the negative stigma of mental health.

Sy​kes-Podunajec said initially, around 50 students showed interest in joining the group. At the first meeting, around 10 students total came up with their first act of kindness: leaving positive notes on each of the cars.

“The bell had rung at the beginning of the school day and five seniors went out and put little pieces of paper with a quote or a positive saying on all of the student’s cars under their windshield wipers,” she said.

Sy​kes-Podunajec said it has been encouraging to see the students come up with their ideas and truly want to make a positive impact on their peers. As the family resource director, she said she sees firsthand some of the struggles that her students are facing both in and out of the classroom.  

“Some of these students are anxious and they have low self-esteem,” said Sy​kes-Podunajec. “Some of them struggle to be confident, especially everything with social media, they’re living in an Instagram versus reality all the time.”

She said social media can impact students with their perception of reality, self-image and mental health. One of the biggest issues she has seen related to mental health and social media is that students hear about what their peers are doing over the weekend and watch real-time events that they may not have been invited to.

This is where a smile – or the Smile Club – could make a difference in the lives of students.

“They just need a little sunshine, just some brightness in their days,” said Sy​kes-Podunajec . “There’s a lot of students who don’t have a lot of friends and it can be difficult for some of them because they will go to school and no one talks to them.”

Sykes-Podunajec said she hopes the club will continue to grow as they have more meetings throughout the school year and that members will perform at least one act of kindness each month.

Her goal for the newly-formed Smile Club is to spread kindness throughout the high school and encourage students to talk to one another about the importance of their mental health.