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Schools focus on prevention measures for mental health

Sylvan Lake News - 12/29/2017

With mental health becoming an issue garnering more and more attention, two Sylvan Lake schools have implemented programs to better support both their staff and students emotionally, spiritually and mentally.

Ecole Mother Teresa Catholic School has the Hands of Mother Teresa, several groups of students who are equipped by staff to be the leaders of community-building activities throughout the year. Ecole Our Lady of the Rosary School has a program called Bethany Buddies where students visit the nearby Bethany Centre to interact with seniors in the residence.

Hands of Mother Teresa

There were so many students interested in the program that Hands of Mother Teresa split the students into three areas: ambassadors, social justice, health and wellness. The program was funded by a grant given to the school by the Red Deer Regional Catholic Education Foundation.

The students in each one of the groups take action within the school in a wide range of ways including taking care of the school garden, organizing events such as Hats on for Mental Health Day and helping with charitable work initiatives such as the Christmas food bank drive. The focus is on gathering the students together within their groups and find out how they want to serve their school community.

"This is really promoting what kids want to do at the school so they have a say," said Trevor Reinhart, school counsellor at Mother Teresa and leader for around 60 students in the ambassador group.

One of the recent activities the ambassadors took part in was to create encouraging sayings to post around the school. Some of the sayings are: "Do something amazing," "Honesty is the best way," and "We make a living by what we get to make a life by what we give."

"We go in and build community," said Reinhart "It helps with mental wellbeing…of how you feel in the school, that safe and caring aspect…"

The ambassadors will soon receive buffs in the school colours that will identify them when they are "in service" to their community, for example, when they are welcoming families to events such as movie night or the Grade 6 orientation evening.

Heather Weaver, another school counsellor heads up the health and wellness group which focuses on activities around the school to help with community building including a bi-yearly career fair, parent appreciation night and movie night.

Weaver said the school is seeing a lot of anxiety in kids which can also lead to depression and that the kids have really embraced the program.

"The kids are much more aware of mental health now than ever before," said Weaver, adding she sees kids now reaching out more often to connect with adults in their community they feel safe with.

She also sees her and Reinhart's role in the community as not just relegated to their time spent at school.

"Those kids are like our kids…we see them at the grocery store, we go to bonfires at the lake with them..they're our neighbours," she said. Reinhart agreed, saying he believes they have planted the seed to create a culture where people feel more free to be open about their true life experience.

Andrea Gringhuis, vice principal for the school sees the program as a cohesive force within the school that streamlines many "arms" with the financial support from a grant received from the Education Foundation.

"There's a lot of hands on deck for these kids," said Gringhuis said

"It will be exciting to see as we take our first steps forward with the new initiatives," she said, also saying the students are playing a crucial role in driving the program as the staff guides them through the development of the program.

In the new year the ambassadors will be attending a weekend workshop facilitated by the Canadian Red Cross with a focus on bullying awareness and prevention. The workshop aims to give students practical tools for preventing violence in school.

Bethany Buddies

With the location of the Bethany Centre so close, it was easy for Lynda Gamroth, school counsellor at Ecole Our Lady of the Rosary School to make the connection between the young children and the seniors and create the program Bethany Buddies. The pre-kindergarten to Grade 3 students interact with the seniors with literacy and craft activities that contribute to the mental health and well-being of both the students and the seniors.

Gamroth says the program gives the students choices about how they want to give of themselves and show kindness to their "buddies."

"They're so creative. Sometimes it's bingos, sometimes it's crafts, sometimes they just want to read,"she said of the students, saying the students are enthusiastic about being given options for how they spend time with their buddy.

To further suport the mental health of their students, Our Lady of the Rosary School also incorporates the Zones of Regulation curriculum in the school which helps students identify whether they're in a state of being able to learn. There's a blue, green, yellow and red zone with the ideal zone being green where the student identifies their state as "happy, calm, focused and ready to learn."

When the students are out of the green zone, they are given the opportunity to work with a variety of self-regulation tools including deep breathing or drawing a picture to help them be mindful of what's occuring in them.

The school has also changed their morning routine to what principal Diane Kulczycki calls "Soft Start," which means there's no bell or announcements right away, giving the little ones time to get to their classrooms with no teachers rushing students into their classrooms.

"It's starting everyone's morning off peacefully and calmly," Kulczycki said, adding she has seen a decrease in the stress level of both teachers and students as a result.

With the Mental Health Commission of Canada reporting that one in three people will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, these two schools are focused on prevention initiatives. Both schools use the the Search Institute's 40 Development Assets as a framework for the activities and programs they support. The assets include values such as integrity, honesty, peaceful conflict resolution, self esteem and positive peer influence.

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