Gig Harbor High School students spread love, smiles on street corner

Want to make a stranger smile? Stand on a street corner during rush hour and hold a sign that says, “You are loved.”

Confused looks and skeptical stares might come initially, but smiles and honking horns are sure to follow.

“Simple signs like ‘I love you’ can change someone’s day,” said Austin Dempewolf, a Gig Harbor High School sophomore.

Dempewolf, 15, was one of about a dozen Gig Harbor High leadership students who took over the corner of Olympic and Point Fosdick drives during rush hour last week.

After a weekend leadership conference, the students plan to return to the corner this week.

Holding homemade signs with phrases of encouragement, the cheering students want to brighten a stranger’s day.

“If we can impact one person driving by, that’s going to have a chain reaction,” said senior Joe Hayes, 18.

Hayes, Dempewolf and Clayton Curtis, 16, can be credited with starting the movement.

The trio stood at one of the city’s busiest intersections Oct. 6 holding signs and waving.

At first they didn’t know what to expect.

“People were really confused,” Hayes said. “Some people asked what church we went to.”

Half of the people driving by didn’t respond, he said. Instead, they shot wary glances.

Then came the supporters.

One woman handed the three students gift cards to Starbucks, thanking them. (They plan to pay it forward with the cards, giving them to people who need them.)

A man walked over and handed them $5. Although they tried to tell him no, he insisted.

A child came up with cups of hot chocolate bought from a nearby espresso stand.

Then came a homeless man and his dog. He looked at the boys, pointed to the sky and said, “He told me to tell you, you are His children.”

The cardboard sign strapped to the man’s backpack asked people for kind words and love, not money, Hayes said.

The man walked away, asking for nothing. He left a lasting impression.

“Having these experiences, you look at people differently,” Hayes said.

At times taken out of their comfort zones, the students said the reaction from drivers bolstered their enthusiasm and made them want to come back.

“The best thing was to see somebody who was frowning drive up,” Curtis said. “Then they’d look at us and read the signs and then smile.”

Waving the signs was a demonstration in servant leadership, said senior Riley Paul, 17.

“It makes their day, but it makes your day too,” she said.

Paul and twins Mackenzie and Miranda Nelson joined the boys on the corner on the second night of sign-waving. By the third night, close to a dozen students had gathered.

“It’s not just what we’re doing with the signs, it’s a whole kind of movement,” Hayes said.

The students got the idea from a video made in 2013 about a Washington, D.C., man who went around the city during rush hour holding up signs of encouragement.

Gig Harbor leadership teacher Kelly Indahl showed the video at the start of the school year. She encouraged her students to follow the man’s lead.

“They knew it was a great idea, but I don’t think they knew what it was going to be,” Indahl said. “It sparked something.”

The students have plans to bring their smiles and love to other busy intersections and overpasses in Gig Harbor. They have visions of standing in the rain on Mondays during the morning commute.

Indahl also is looking to partner with leadership classes at other schools, including Peninsula High School, to reach more people.

“Each day has been something big that has touched my heart,” Hayes said. “One person can start this.”

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467