Ben Melody doesn’t know it yet as he sits at a table located just steps out the backdoor of Gilbert High School on a warm Monday afternoon in mid-September, but he’s just four days away from being named Homecoming King. His ascent to school royalty should come as a surprise to no one though. He’s smart. Articulate. A friend to anyone and everyone who needs someone in their corner. Peers gravitate to him in happy times and cling to him in times of pain.

Ben has his hands in a lot of Gilbert’s cookie jars, so to speak, but it’s a group he helped form outside of the school walls that he’s most proud of though. It puts a sparkle in his eyes and a swell in his chest. The other founding members — fellow Gilbert seniors Adelaide Searles, Weston Congdon, Dalton Nelson, and Aidan Wimmer — feel the same way, and they see Ben as their leader.

Truthfully, it’s Ben’s baby. It has been from the start.

“Oh yeah, Ben’s the leader. For sure,” one person says before the other three quickly agree when they’re all sitting together. Ben is sitting there too, and his cheeks flush with embarrassment at their agreement.

What the group has created is monumental, both in its current form and for what it will continue to be in the years to come. And while it may not be a Gilbert Schools organization, you better believe it’s for Gilbert Schools and its students in both the present and the future.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Moving Forward — an organization for students by students.

“We want to make Gilbert better for the future,” Ben says, “and to have a true impact we needed it to be completely us.”

What started as just an idea among a group of friends that now consider each other family last December has become one of the most recognizable organizations around Gilbert High School. Simply put, Ben and his peers have made teen mental health awareness and inclusivity cool inside the walls of Gilbert High School. That it’s been done so quickly is nothing short of remarkable.

Their events, six in all since the kickoff in March, have steadily drawn bigger and bigger crowds with September’s Movie Night bringing in more than 170 students — nearly a third of the high school student body — for an evening of fun and togetherness. It surpassed the previous record crowd of more than 150 students that attended a bonfire in July.

There are Facebook (Moving Forward) and Instagram (@movingforward50014) accounts with hundreds of followers. There’s a Venmo account (@MovingForward43) for anyone who would like to contribute to their cause. There are wristbands for sale in the Tiger Den. And, soon enough, there will be merch (as the kids like to say) on the streets — T-shirts and sweatshirts with the Moving Forward logo that are currently available for pre-order.

The founders would be lying if they said this is exactly what they envisioned. In reality, it’s bigger and better than they ever imagined. And it’s just getting started.

What is Moving Forward?

In its simplest form, Moving Forward is about giving a voice to every student. It’s about giving every student a place where they belong. It’s about making Gilbert Schools a better place for every student. No cliques. No exclusivity. No agenda other than to welcome every student in with arms wide open.

And it’s 100 percent student driven.

Repeat: It’s 100 percent student driven.

“I am so proud of the fact that it’s grassroots driven,” Gilbert Schools Superintendent Dr. Christine Trujillo says. “They listened to the needs of the kids and they really went the extra mile. It wasn’t about just getting kids to an event. They reached out to kids, they got to know the kids’ names, and it was about bringing kids in to say everybody belongs here.”

Dennis May and Allison Fugere are two of those students who were brought into the fold, and they quickly realized they wanted to dive right into the deep end of the pool. Both juniors at Gilbert High School, they’re official Moving Forward members and a part of the class that will take the reins of the organization a year from now.

“What Ben has created is so beautiful and he’ll never get all of the credit that he deserves,” Dennis says. “On one hand, it’s very endearing that this hasn’t gone to his head, but on the other hand, it’s frustrating to see how he steers away from all of the credit that he deserves.”

Dennis and Allison paint a picture of a Moving Forward event, and they do so with smiles on their faces. They talk about metaphorical walls coming down between students and new friendships being formed among students that likely never would have put themselves out there prior to Moving Forward.

“A lot of the coldness that people have toward each other, especially passing in the hallway, that stuff just completely melts away (after a Moving Forward event),” Dennis says. “So many people become so much friendlier than they were before.”

Dennis is a people person, always has been. As a freshman and sophomore, he went out of his way to introduce himself to other students and befriend as many as he could. At times, his persistence paid off. But too many times, he felt the sting of the cold shoulder, to the point that his bright demeanor began to dim.

Moving Forward has changed all of that, he says.

“The way I look at my fellow students has changed,” he says. “I started off high school wanting to make as many friends as possible, but by sophomore year, I realized that not everybody was going to be my friend. When Moving Forward started up, it rekindled that fire to meet new students. The dream I had in freshman year of making friends with everyone I could find is becoming more and more possible.”

Allison sees herself connecting with so many new peers too. What stands out to her at Moving Forward events is when she sees upperclassmen — juniors and seniors — going out of their way to introduce themselves to and befriend freshmen.

“It’s really nice for Dennis and I to go and talk to the younger ones because that makes them feel more seen, and I talk to them when I see them at school and in the hallways,” Allison says. “We know the teachers are there for us, but it’s so nice to see students themselves say we care about you. Students we see in the hallways every day genuinely care about us and that makes such a huge difference.”

September’s Movie Night at Gilbert High School kicked off at 5 p.m. with food and board games in the commons area. Basketball, volleyball, and bags took place in the gymnasium, and other students gravitated toward the wrestling room to play dodgeball or other games. Eventually, the event shifted to the auditorium for a screening of Top Gun: Maverick.

The key is that while groups of friends may have attended together, they splintered to interact with other groups during the event. There were no cliques. There were no groups keeping to themselves. Rather, there was a concerted effort to leave the protective bubble and venture out with the goal of meeting and bonding with new people.

The more the merrier, Moving Forward says.

“In general, we try to break up tables to try to bring everybody together as a group,” Dennis says. “It’s so cool to see friend groups that never would have talked to each other sit down and play UNO. Or to see (group) A and (group) B talk together for the first time ever … we’ve seen really beautiful friendships come with that.”

“People don’t feel so alone anymore,” Allison adds. “Even if they don’t go to events, they know they’re always welcome and they know people still care about them.”

The original five founders see these interactions and fill with pride. It’s been this way since the beginning.

“At that first event, I think Ben and I hugged at least six times because what we envisioned and what actually happened came together,” Dalton Nelson says. “This is really important to us.”

Prior to the September event, the now 15 members of Moving Forward hosted a school assembly in the high school auditorium. Nearly every member spoke about the importance of the group and how it’s there to help students in times of need.

To a person, the five founders admitted it was scary to stand in front of their peers — more than 500 of them, actually — and tell their story. But it was necessary to spread their message — one of hope, and love, and harmony, and a belief in each other — for everyone to hear.

“I’m an introvert,” Ben says, and immediately the other four original members admit they feel the same way. “If you would have asked me even eight months ago if us five would have been standing up in front of the entire school … no chance. But we had to do it to get our message out there.”

“My heart is pounding every time I talk to a new person, but we do it because we care,” Weston Congdon says. “So many friend groups talking and hanging out, it’s so cool to have so many people together at the same time.”

The all-senior founders are determined not to see the group fade into a memory once they graduate. For them, Moving Forward would be a failure if that happens, which is why they’re taking steps to teach the younger members how to lead. Ben is also putting together an action plan to keep Moving Forward, well, moving forward.

“Once we graduate, we’re passing this down,” Ben says. “It would be incredibly hypocritical if we continue leading after we’re gone because this needs to be student driven. We can’t do that when we’re not students anymore.”

Dennis and Allison know it will be daunting to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, but they also know the cause is too important to let the challenge be intimidating.

“The dream that Ben has created is absolutely beautiful,” Dennis says. “I don’t know how we can improve upon what he’s created, but I know we’re certainly going to try.”

“We’re pretty excited (about leading), but also it’s a little scary because Ben has done so much,” Allison says. “Moving Forward won’t be the same without him.”

From tragedy sprouts togetherness

It would be disingenuous to say the idea of Moving Forward came about on a whim. The truth is that it came during a time of mourning and sorrow around Gilbert Schools, a time in which Ben, Adelaide, Weston, Dalton, and Aidan said enough is enough.

The passing of classmate Nolan Clewell by suicide in early November of 2021 had a profound effect on Ben, who considered himself one of Nolan’s best friends prior to his death. It was the second such tragedy at Gilbert Schools in as many years; Class of 2022 member Henry Owen took his own life in September of 2020.

Following Nolan’s death, the Melody house became a refuge for many of the members of the Class of 2023. In the days following the tragedy, Ben estimates anywhere between 15 and 80 classmates were at his house at various times during the days.

Kids talked. Cried. Mourned. Remembered. And they did it all together.

There were games, there were laughs, and there was peace. No hidden agendas. No social circles ostracized.

Ben remembers it like this: “It was just really cool how all of the groups were mixing and playing games and we all thought, why can’t we be like this all of the time? How can we make this not stop here? How are we going to grow as a community and student body?”

Weston and Adelaide were among the students that gravitated to the Melody house in the days following Nolan’s death. At first, they were hesitant to join the group; they didn’t really know Ben and wondered if they would fit in. Soon enough though, they knew they belonged. Everyone belonged.

“Ben was scary,” Weston says with a smirk as he gives Ben a glance. “I was not friends with Ben until he invited me over to the house.”

“I was hesitant to go to Ben’s house too,” Adelaide says. “My friend invited me … I went every day and started hanging out with these guys.”

Ben, Adelaide, Weston, Dalton, and Aidan all felt like they needed to do something for their fellow students, and for their school. And in the following months, Moving Forward went from just a dream to reality.

“We wanted to get off the past and make Gilbert better for the future,” Ben says. “All of us loved Nolan and that’s why we’ve worked so hard because we miss our buddy and we don’t want anyone to go through that pain again.”

A group meeting in December led to another in January and another in February. Throughout this period, as they developed a strategy and goals for their group, they were adamant about one thing — it had to be student driven. It was a big ask of Gilbert Schools to let them grab the wheel and drive on such an important topic as teen mental health awareness, and yet the resolve in the group’s words and actions earned the trust of school administrators.

“I really understood why they felt the need to take it into their own hands,” Gilbert High School Principal Cindy Bassett says. “Because who are the strongest influencers on teenagers? It’s teenagers. We do everything we can as parents and educators, but we know during this time of their lives that our voice is just a murmur. We’re there and we’re trying as hard as we can, but we’re just kind of a dull murmur. So if it’s going to work, kids have to do it, and it was kids doing this when they were feeling their worst and most lost.”

It’s Necessary

In a survey of 7,705 high school students (grades 9-12) from January to June in 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 44 percent of those students who took part have a feeling of sadness or hopelessness every day for two consecutive weeks or more. Three influential groups — the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association — offered a similarly disturbing message in October of 2021 when they jointly declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

Gilbert Schools is not immune to this national trend, proved by the tragedies in recent years. The district is doing all it can to help students navigate through difficult times and provide them with the tools necessary to help each other. It has thrown its full support behind Moving Forward, and in 2021 it began training its students in teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA).

The now junior and senior classes went through the training in 2021, and in mid-September the current sophomore class was given the tools necessary to help one another. tMHFA was developed in response to research that shows teens prefer their peers when it comes to sharing about their challenges.

Gilbert Schools also makes other resources available to its students who may be struggling with mental health. All high school students have free access to counseling services with a licensed therapist, and students have been made aware of other avenues for help, such as the Statewide Crisis Line which provides mental health counselors who will travel for in-home visits with those that are struggling.

“All of it goes to show that’s who we are at Gilbert,” Bassett says. “We’re empowering students by saying, what do you need? We’re going to give you the tools and resources to help when you need it.”

Bassett is excited for what the future holds at Gilbert Schools, and she knows what an impact Moving Forward has had on the student body in such a short time.

“I’m so proud of them and I’m so excited for what they’ve created for Gilbert kids,” she says. “What they’re doing matters even more for every younger grade of kids. They’re building a legacy and it’s going to grow exponentially.”

Ben thinks about Nolan a lot these days, particularly during the Moving Forward events and the days leading up to them. He believes his friend would have enjoyed them. He believes his friend would have fit right in.

“We’re doing this as a way to help people like Nolan,” Ben says. “I miss Nolan every day, but our group is completely about the future and what we’re going to do about it.”

With that, Ben stands up and heads back into the high school. It’s almost time for football practice, and homework after that. Soon enough, he and his friends will begin planning their next Moving Forward event, and they’ll hope it’s even bigger than the previous get together.

It’s important to them. It’s important to the school.

It’s important to the future.