Valley High School grad returns to alma mater to help students find their value
It’s been 13 years since Stephen Thomas Jr. sat in a desk at Valley High School.
The 2006 Valley graduate, now 32 and a pastor in Washington County, has returned to his alma mater to talk with today’s students about having value, vision and purpose in their lives.
“We teach kids math, science and social studies,” he said. “They’re not given a proper perspective of themselves. I want to instill self-worth and value at a young age so they can function in life properly.”
He’ll be speaking with students in Beth Ryce’s English and journalism classes every other Wednesday throughout the school year. His second visit was last week.
Ryce said Thomas, a former pupil of hers, reached out to her this summer to thank her for helping him and said he wanted to give back. They met to plan out what they’d be doing over the school year.
Ryce said her students were “kind of enraptured” by Thomas the first time he was there to speak.
Thomas is “so smart and so well spoken and so engaging and passionate and caring, they were all just glowing,” she said.
“He makes them think,” she said. “That’s huge.”
As the lead pastor at Legacy Church International in Washington, Pa., Thomas said what he’s doing at Valley High School has its roots in his experience helping mentor people in recovery from drug addiction. He’s met people who started using drugs at 12 or 13 years old — some even younger.
“They’re trying to numb their pain. They don’t have coping skills or a sense of self-worth,” he said. “You can’t tell me you value yourself and put foreign substances in your body.
“When I’m able to see myself properly, I’m able to function in life properly,” he said. “If I don’t see myself as valued, I’m existing instead of living.”
During his second visit in Ryce’s classroom, Thomas was talking with students about issues surrounding self-image, self-esteem and self-worth.
Although he’s a pastor, Thomas said his talks are not religious.
“I’m careful not to impose my belief system on somebody else, but it does shine through,” he said.
While he now lives outside the New Kensington-Arnold School District, Thomas said he wanted to start his effort back home in New Kensington.
Thomas said he grew up in a “crazy household” full of anger and dysfunction.
He said Ryce, who he had for English his junior year, was instrumental in his life. She helped him function in high school, even if she didn’t realize she was doing it.
“I didn’t want to live. I felt rejected. I didn’t fit anywhere,” he said. “Even though I smiled every day, I was dying on the inside. I didn’t know how to express that and open up and tell someone how I felt.
“She saw the best in me when I wasn’t able to see the best in myself,” he said.
Other than stopping in once a few years ago to see his music teacher, Thomas hasn’t been to his high school since graduating. Being back has brought back a lot of feelings.
“I became a teenager all over again,” he said. “Finding my adult voice in there is harder than I thought it was going to be.”
Thomas said he tries “to help these kids not to bump their heads the same way I did, getting caught up in what other people think and wearing masks to try to fit in.”
Thomas wants the students to be comfortable with themselves and not get caught up in comparisons and competition.
His ultimate goal is to get the students to value themselves and to have a vision and purpose for their lives.
“At some point, they’re going to be making decisions for our future,” he said. “I want to help them to make decisions from a healthy place.”
Ryce said she loves that a graduate has returned to the school to reach out to students, who in him can see where they can go.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing the results that come at the end of the year,” she said. “I’m hoping we can do this just beyond my four walls and spread it out to the rest of the school.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .