Of Plato and Invisible Backpacks

It’s not every day that a student texts you a quote from Plato. It was spring break for the UP schools, our after-school camps had students and teen StreetLeaders out on adventures, and one of the teens who is in a class I teach sent me a picture from a memorial plaque that read, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” – Plato. So, I texted back, “Isn’t that the truth?” and she answered, “I thought that went with the backpack theme we went over in class”. It’s probably good that she couldn’t see me jumping up and down with joy as I texted back, “Absolutely! You have so got this! I think I may use this quote for my doctoral project.” And she answered, “Yes do it – I thought it was great. I found it at the Cape May zoo”.

 

This is the fifth year of our Wellness Center existence, which we will be celebrating this evening at our annual Be Well, Be Promise fundraiser. And it is the year we were able to deepen the services that we offer. We have had 6 professionals providing trauma-informed counseling, thanks to our gifted therapist Trish, two dedicated volunteers, and graduate student interns. We were able to meet every referral that was made by our teaching staff, providing an average of 80 counseling sessions every month. 80% of our classrooms learned how to practice mindfulness. Our high school students participated in 6 weeks of interactive self-esteem classes with interns. Our elementary school grades had access to drum circles, a Lego group and OK/Not OK Touch education. Our sophomores learned about emotional intelligence, which is shown to be a powerful tool for success. We also did career planning with reality checks of what it takes financially to move out of poverty. We doubled the number of garden to table cooking classes offered and are getting each grade out into the garden at least once this spring, with friend and colleague Nadia working hard to keep the garden ready. In the kitchen our dietitian Judy has shifted cooking from prepared meals to scratch cooking, has kids participating in taste tests and naming contests to increase buy-in to our healthy food we serve, and has been educating every grade in our schools, as well as being a frequent presence in the cafeteria to sit with students and answer questions. And in our elementary classrooms volunteer Kate has been coaching teachers on how to incorporate frequent movement into the curriculum and class day – both to reduce the risk of obesity as well as to help manage behavior. Because really, who likes to sit still for long periods of time?

 

And this year, not only has our staff continued to receive trauma-informed training but so have 9 of our youth. Every Friday morning, they tromp over to the Peace House on campus from the high school, where I have breakfast bars and coffee waiting…and we talk about the science that undergirds all of our wellness initiatives. They can tell you about the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, ACEs for short, which showed that for every traumatic event like abuse, neglect and witnessing domestic violence, health risks increase as do behavior issues. They name immediately now which “brain state” they are in – recognizing when something has triggered them into their emotional brains – where it is harder to both think rationally and to respond to pleas of “just calm down” by well-meaning adults. And they are practicing how to “regulate” themselves with safety plans which include self-talk, deep breathing and taking a drink of cold water to maintain control. Talk about entertaining texts – I have received three this year that said “Mrs Becky! I did it! I didn’t fight! I was just about to and then I remembered what you said.” And the Plato quote? Well, we talk all the time about the invisible backpack that everyone carries. If you open it you will find ACE scores that average 5 in Camden, emotions that we are carrying from earlier events, and relationships, both healthy and unhealthy, that help form our reactions to others…all of which can’t be seen by just looking at someone. So we do need to be kind.

My heart is filled with gratitude when I reflect back on these past 5 years. I am thankful for staff, volunteers, our donors who make this possible, and most of all our amazing youth who are overflowing with potential and fill me with hope. God is good.

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3 responses

  1. WOW…love the image of our backpacks and have no doubt Plato would have loved it also! Continue to be inspired by the impact of UP Wellness Center – leadership which includes students, the teachers, volunteers and the greater supportive community.

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