LUGOFF, S.C. — Following the tragic school shooting in Parkland, FL on Feb. 14, 2018, teachers searched for ways to ease their students fears. One teacher at Lugoff-Elgin High School in Camden found a way to bring out student’s feelings through their own self-expression.

Art teacher Gina Bruce heard her students struggling to comprehend the aftermath of a mass school casualty. Bruce encouraged them to speak about their emotions, but many were fearful of having their voices heard.

Bruce researched for ways to push her students to express themselves and that is when she heard about the Puzzle Project.

“I came across this man named Tim Kelly. He’s from New York and he is doing a huge art puzzle project, but it doesn’t really have a theme,” says Bruce.

She reached out to Kelly and was given the green light to start the project in South Carolina. “I kind of stole his idea and put it into something that I think would be beneficial for our community and our schools,” she said.

Essentially, the puzzle project gives students a safe space to express their emotions, personal experiences and feelings about current issues. Each person is provided a blank puzzle piece where they can decorate it with anything that inspires them.

With funding from her principle, Worth Thomasson, Bruce was able to put her plans into motion. She collaborated with Derek Napper, a digital art and design instructor at ATEC, who cut the 17 x 17 inch puzzle pieces.

Bruce’s next step was to create a curriculum to go with the art project. She decided the class would do two days of activities leading up to the project.

“We talk about bullying. We write about bullying. We write about the things the kids see. We get in small groups and talk. We do a thing called ‘I wish my teacher knew’,” Bruce said.

She went on to say she took all these ideas and combined them into one project that would complete the puzzle. “I was not expecting the first group of kids that I did to open up like they did,” Bruce said in surprise.

Bruce decided the only way to make her students feel comfortable about coming out about their feelings was to get the kids to simply talk to each other.

“We did lessons on feeling what other people feel and empathy…We did that beforehand to make sure that all of my kids are safe,” Bruce says.

She made them write letters to themselves and to each other. They took photos of themselves and passed them around while other students wrote genuine comments about that person and how they felt about them. Bruce’s intentions were to make each person feel completely comfortable around their peers.

“Once that was in place, they just started telling each other things and telling me things. They want to be heard, they want someone to listen to them,” she said.

The project helped students truly become themselves around their classmates.

Sarah Lanaghan, a junior at Lugoff-Elgin High School, used this to share her message about body positivity. Lanaghan says she wanted others to know that your weight does not define who you are.

“The puzzle project is just a way for me to get that message out to other people because I’m a very reserved person and so I’m not that used to talking to others,” Lanaghan said.

Bruce hopes to expand the puzzle project to other schools around the state. She says the only way this is possible is to have enough funding so that other students can have the opportunity to have their voices heard.