Severna Park High School (SPHS) principal Lindsay Abruzzo has a well-known affinity for Vans, the iconic southern California-based company known for, among other things, its footwear.
Abruzzo, who is wrapping up her first year as principal at the school, has 26 pairs of Vans shoes in her closet. They’re not just for show.
Just how often does the educator sport the iconic brand of kicks?
“Every single day,” Abruzzo said with a pause between each word.
Vans, which was founded in 1966, has long been known for promoting creativity and individuality with its roots in skateboarding, arts, music and street culture.
Thanks to a recent Vans shoe design contest at SPHS, the brand is also being used to spread a message of kindness and inclusion.
In January, a video of a SPHS teenager bullying a student with special needs in the cafeteria went viral. In the video, the perpetrator, who no longer attends SPHS, used threatening, obscene and racist language toward the other student.
In the subsequent days, the school hosted a community conversation centered around kindness and inclusion, which was led by Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell. Abruzzo then spearheaded other initiatives, including grade-level assemblies stressing anti-bullying and open discussion. She also wanted to do something a bit different to get the message across, or “Off the Wall” in Vans parlance.
“I wanted to come up with something to kind of unite us as a community — school community and community,” Abruzzo said.
Nuria Williams, the director of school performance for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, helped spur the idea. She suggested a Vans shoe design contest to the principal, knowing the students are aware of Abruzzo’s fondness for the brand.
Abruzzo was sold on the idea and announced the contest on the last day of January. Each design was required to show anti-bullying or kindness themes on them in some way. Abruzzo pledged to have two pairs of the winning design made, on her own dime, once a winner was determined — one for the student designer and one for the principal. The sneaker design concepts were put on display at the school, where students could vote for their favorite.
Abruzzo ended up purchasing four pairs. Seventeen-year-old senior Nadia Abdolahi and 16-year-old sophomore Jameson Murray tied for the most votes.
“I just wanted to kind of be a part of something because I haven’t really been a part of much in the schools,” Nadia said. “I thought this was a really cool idea because I like to draw on my iPad, and I just wanted to be a part of it.”
Nadia’s design features bluebell flowers, which she said symbolize humility, kindness and warmth.
“I just love flowers and all different kinds, so I just looked up different flowers and different meanings and tried to find the one that I thought fit this cause best,” Nadia said of her bluebell inspiration. “And they were just super beautiful, and I just thought they were perfect.”
Jameson’s choice to participate came down to personal reasons.
“Me and some of my friends have not had the kindest words said to us, so I feel like it was a good way to kind of talk about it,” Jameson said. “This also makes me feel proud to go here because it’s for such a good cause. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, design a pair of Vans just to design a pair of Vans,’ so it’s actual meaning behind it.”
Jameson’s design features a colorful combination of ribbons signifying awareness for topics such as autism, mental health, anti-bullying, suicide, Down syndrome and LGBTQ. He said the idea came about, in part, while he was doing homework on his couch and something relating to the late artist Keith Haring meshed with a recent awareness campaign at school.
“I’ve seen more people looking down at my shoes when passing in the hallway than usually do, so it definitely grabs their attention,” Jameson said.
Both winning designs have “BE” on the rear of the left shoe and “KIND” on the back of the right one.
“If you’re walking in front of someone, it grabs their attention and they’re like, ‘Wait a minute, your shoes say be kind,’ and then you can start talking about them,” Abruzzo said.
SPHS junior Eric Lin, who was recently chosen as the next Anne Arundel County Public Schools Student Member of the Board of Education, applauded the initiative.
“I think it was a creative idea, and I am glad the administration is taking steps to try new things and get the community together positively,” Eric said.
Steve Van Doren, Vans vice president of promotions and events and the son of Vans co-founder Paul Van Doren, said his company has always remained dedicated to supporting local communities and people.
“It’s humbling and makes me extremely proud to hear how our brand has touched the lives of others, especially youth,” Van Doren said. “We lead with our hearts and a fearless compassion for others and aim to find value in our differences. Vans is on a mission to empower everyone to use creativity to discover themselves, and to create a world where everyone feels comfortable and safe being their unique self.”
Abruzzo said the Vans her students designed are a conduit for a broader message.
“Yes, Vans are my thing, and yes, I love them, but what I really want is for the ‘be kind’ to catch your eye, or the ribbons to catch your eye, and remind everybody that we’re all in this together, we’re all people,” Abruzzo said.
Nadia, who is slated to attend Anne Arundel Community College on a scholarship where she aims to get a feel for college and see what sparks her interest, said she feels appreciated after winning the contest and seeing the interest in her design from others.
“People put a bad rep on the school because they think that we’re just like spoiled and rich, but everyone here has their own problems, so just for this to be talked about is really nice,” Nadia said.
“I feel like it kind of helps with the reputation that you get for going to this school, and like if someone brings up something bad, you can say, ‘Oh well, Ms. Abruzzo actually did this to help combat that,’” Jameson said.
As to bullying at SPHS, Abruzzo said, “It’s not who we’re going to be.” She hopes the community rallies behind the simple message that is visible while walking behind the Vans designed by Nadia and Jameson.
The contest-winning designs by Jameson and Nadia can be purchased, and further customized (to include different shoe styles), at these links: