Tiffany Woods: Empowering students to advocate for mental health awareness – Daily Journal

When the Greenwood Education Foundation, or GEF, started in 2014, our focus at the time was to provide proper funding for classrooms in the midst of budget cuts. GEF established a teacher grant program, which awards $40,000 annually to Greenwood teachers, along with numerous scholarships throughout the past decade.

But when COVID-19 hit, our organizational mission evolved into something I could have never imagined when accepting the role of Greenwood Education Foundation President after teaching for 12 years. We saw firsthand the importance schools have in our community and the various services families rely on that stretch far beyond academic endeavors. As a result, we launched a new initiative called “GEF Cares” aimed to assist with food, clothing and mental health to ensure that families in need have resources available to them.

This program takes a holistic approach to supporting students who come to school hungry or have experienced trauma by helping address those needs so they can achieve their academic potential when in the classroom. We are proud to provide periodic drive-thru food pantries, coats for students in the winter, free haircuts year-round and much more. But our third pillar, a focus on improving students’ mental health and wellness, has quickly become one of the most impactful.

Over the past year, GEF has received two grants that have kick-started the GEF Cares initiative. The first was the Community Development Block Grant, which allowed us to provide free music therapy in the primary grades for children in small groups. We also wanted something geared toward older children in high school so we applied for the Colts “Kicking the Stigma” grant. We received $5,000, which allowed us to start “Bring Change to Mind.”

“Bring Change to Mind” is a national program with a focus on mental health and wellness. After going through the trauma of COVID-19 and the new social media-focused world, we saw a lot of students struggling to cope and process things in their day-to-day lives.

Launched this year, “Bring Change to Mind” is a student-led club that goes through a series of curriculum and activities led by two student-leaders with the goal of breaking down the stigma that exists surrounding mental health discussions and helps students connect with their peers. Students learn to recognize when their friends and they need help, and gives them the means to help each other.

We recently partnered with Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield to expand the “Bring Change to Mind” program. Together, we implemented a mental health awareness campaign that took place the week of Sept. 25 – 29, which included a series of student-led activities. The festivities kicked off bright and early Monday morning where 50 GHS football players, cheerleaders and Bring Change to Mind members passed out five hundred 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline wallet cards.

Activities continued throughout the week and culminated with a Highlight Mental Health Community Tailgate before the football game Friday night. The student broadcast program at GHS also recorded a podcast with support from Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, highlighting football players discussing the difference between mental toughness and mental health, and how the two coexist.

Over the course of the week, students and the community came together all sharing the same message, “If you are not okay, I am here to listen.”

Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield also stepped up in a big way by providing GEF with a $10,000 donation to support the Cares initiative that will continue to provide local students, staff and families with tools, resources and support for mental health among other vital resources.

Far too often students appear to be OK but remain silent. We want everyone to understand that just because you’re not okay today, does not mean tomorrow can’t be better.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among high school aged youth and that is a statistic that is simply unacceptable. Together with Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, Bring Change to Mind and the Greenwood Education Foundation, we want to continue to erase the stigma of discussing mental health.

Empowering students to advocate with their friends, students, teachers and others in their communities for mental health awareness is vital to creating a more empathetic and stigma-free school environment. Every day we make more progress and while we are proud of the work we have accomplished, there is still more to do.

Tiffany Woods is President of the Greenwood Education Foundation. Send comments to [email protected].

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