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Michael Arterberry, 46, of New Fairfield, Connecticut, is the executive director of Youth Voices Center, a nonprofit organization that has gained recognition for its Power of Peace program, which he has brought to schools across the tri-state area.

Arterberry graduated from Iona College in New Rochelle with a degree in social work and began his career as a case worker, monitoring the care of children with foster families. He later became an independent living specialist who provided counseling and training for children.

Arterberry moved on to work in the Westchester County school system as a counselor for at-risk youth. It was at that time he started developing his own curriculum that became the Power of Peace program after growing frustrated with programs available to him.

“They would give me curriculums that were garbage,” Arterberry recalled.

Seven years ago, he unveiled the Power of Peace program at New Rochelle High School for 25 students. Seven years later, he is making plans to bring the program to school districts throughout the country, including a school district in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The program aims to teach young people, especially those raised in poverty or dysfunctional families, to better understand how their actions impact not only their lives but the lives of others.

“I ask for a cross-section of students of what’s represented in that school building,” Arterberry said. “I want the white student, the black student, the honors student, the student that has money, the student that lives in poverty. “I take 25 to 35 students at a time and I run them through a two-day interactive exercises that gives them the ability to self-reflect and learn about themselves, but in the process of learning about themselves, they build community with students they would normally never hang out with.”

Arterberry said he grew up in a lower-class, dysfunctional family but added he is proof that a person’s surroundings do not have to define them.

“I want kids to understand life is about legacies,” Arterberry said. “You can live in that environment, but you don’t have to become that.”

Arterberry brought the Power of Peace program to Hudson Senior High School for the first time at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year at the request of the administration. The program was intended for a group of students selected by faculty and Arterberry said the experience was overwhelmingly positive, with students actively lobbying to take part after the first group finished.

He said a student who had problems working with teachers became a changed person after attending his program.

“His mom came to school and asked, ‘What did you do to my son?,’” Arterberry said. “I love Hudson because the kids have embraced the message and because they embraced the message, it’s changing the climate of the building.”

He plans to return to Hudson in the 2014-15 school year to continue the program with a new crop of students, with the help of those he has already trained.

“We chose him to speak because of the positive influence he’s had on many of our students,” said Hudson High School Principal Antonio “Tiney” Abitabile. “We’ve already told the students and they’re thrilled.”

Arterberry said he almost fainted when Abitabile asked him to speak at the school’s commencement ceremony.

However, he said he has a good idea of what he will talk about at the graduation, including “The Farmer’s Donkey” fable.

After a farmer’s donkey falls down a well, the farmer realizes the animal is old and cannot be retrieved, so he decides to bury the donkey alive. The farmer invited all of his neighbors over to help fill in the well with dirt. They all began to throw shovels filled with dirt down the well. When the dirt first fell on the donkey and he realized he was being buried alive, he let out a loud cry but quickly quieted down. The farmer looked down the well and looked with amazement when he saw the donkey shake each shovel of dirt off his back and take one step up. Over time, as the farmer and his neighbors continued to shovel dirt down the well, the donkey stepped out of the well and happily ran off.

“I explain to the students that they have to identify what their dirt is and we give them the tools to shake it off,” Arterberry said. “And they step on it so they don’t become victims of the circumstances they’re dealing with in their lives.”

The high school’s 2014 graduation ceremony will be held at 7 p.m. June 27.

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