DAPHNE — Emma Perkins has been through more than most her age.
Before the age of three, she was diagnosed with leukemia. The next two years she was in full-blown treatment. After a long battle, she "rang the bell" at Women and Children's Hospital, meaning her treatments were over.
Her battle with the disease saw complications, though.
"She had to have multiple facial surgeries due to a fungus that really exploded in her sinus cavity, and she had no immune system to combat it," Mike Dumas, Perkins' dad, said.
She has since undergone facial reconstruction surgery in Birmingham, he said.
Despite the hardships she faced at a young age, Perkins retains hope. She has a message she wants to spread to her classmates, to others who, like she has in the past, are struggling.
She wants to make a positive impact on her classmates. Give them an outlet to make their own positive impacts.
She wants to share a Kindness Club.
As can happen too often in life, the positive idea sparked from adversity.
"In seventh grade, I got bullied, and I felt pretty down," Perkins said. "I thought maybe a club to help people find friends would be nice. I talked to my parents, and when eighth grade started, I had all my plans set out."
With her parents' help, Perkins learned the protocols for starting a new club. Step one would be to find a teacher to sponsor it.
She took those plans to Tiffany Holt, social studies teacher at DMS.
Holt taught Perkins during her seventh-grade year. When she found Perkins back in her classroom the next year, asking if Holt would sponsor the Kindness Club, she couldn't resist.
Finally, after months of planning, organizing and awaiting approval, the Kindness Club got the green light during the final semester of the 2021-2022 school year.
"There were probably only six or eight meetings total before the school year ended, but they were always positive," Dumas said.
EMMA'S KINDNESS CLUB
The club's logo is "Make It Happy," reflecting the vibe of the group. The message can be seen in every poster, every button crafted by club members. During her time at Daphne Middle, Perkins and her club members even shared positive messages during some morning announcements.
"We met every other week in the library," Perkins said. "It was for everyone who wanted to be in something that was positive and reassuring, so they could come to a safe place."
She watched as club members found friends. She saw people stop in the hallways to read the posters created by the Kindness Club. She marveled as people who had never spoken bonded, spoke up for one another and shared stories.
"The club's message is really important, because a lot of kids feel like they don't fit in," Perkins said. "They don't have the perfect body, or the perfect style, or there's something about their appearance they can't fix, or they have insecurities about. They might have family issues, or just not fit in. And sometimes they can get made fun of because they're different. But I feel like standing out and being different is good. You don't have to be like every other person to fit in."
Holt said the students who joined the club weren't always connected with teams or other organizations. Many were new to the school and area.
And not only did Holt see a difference in the students who attended the club, she also saw a change in Perkins.
"I gave her a little bit of what she needed to do, and I told her that I would be here, but I wanted her to be the person who commands the room and takes on the different roles," Holt said. "And she did, with no problem. She would come and talk with me afterwards to get my advice on how things went, so the fact that she herself felt so confident just made me so proud."
Perkins and Holt's work caught the attention of the administration as well.
This year, Holt was asked to take it a step further. She was given a new focus homeroom, one that's purpose is to carry out the mission started by Perkins.
"They gave me a very specific group of girls only, both seventh and eighth grade girls," Holt said. "We have a lot of kids that have transferred in, a lot of children who are not from here, and a lot of those girls were put into this homeroom. We're trying to build a small community, with the background of we're nice to everyone, we accept everyone, and wherever you are in life, this is for you, this is a place for you."
Holt said many middle schoolers find peer interactions can be difficult. This is especially true for those transitioning into a school from another area, she added.
The group of 20 students in Holt's focus homeroom chose to call themselves "pearls," which stands for: "Positive," "Encourage," "Achievement," "Respect," "Loyal," and "Successful."
"These are the qualities that the girls want to show other people," Holt said. "We start with being positive, and we're going to carry on Emma's first activity with posters. We're going to express those different characteristics in different ways to different people."
Holt says they're starting small to see how the homeroom is received. She said she wouldn't be surprised if in the coming years, the focus homeroom is one all students can sign up to join.