A message from CEO Dave Pilon:
I had the coolest experience this morning!
A few weeks ago, Rhonda Schultz, MHA’s Constituency Development Coordinator, was contacted by the staff at Norwalk High School. The school has an annual event, “Charity for Charities,” in which the students sell granola bars with the proceeds going to different charitable organizations that are selected by the students themselves. It turned out that one of the student leaders had selected MHALA as her charity and they asked if I could attend an assembly at the school at which MHALA and all the other charities would be presented with a check for $1000 that each of the student teams had raised.
Not being one to turn down a free $1000, of course I said yes. But honestly, I was not prepared for what an emotional and inspiring event it would turn out to be!
Arriving about 9 a.m., the other charities’ representatives and I were ushered into the career center where we were introduced to the student who had selected our charity. I was introduced to Victoria L., a senior who will graduate on June 15. I have to admit that, when I was told that we would be talking individually from 9 to 10:15, the thought came to mind, “How am I going to keep from totally boring this young woman after 15 seconds?” Since I stopped doing therapy in private practice in 1994, I am rarely around high school students and even more rarely am I called on to have extended conversations with them. “Time to dial up those therapy skills,” I thought…
Turns out that I needn’t have been concerned. Over the next 75 minutes or so we got to know each other as we chatted about all kinds of things. Most relevantly, when I asked her why she had selected MHA as her charity, she mentioned that she had “personal experience” with mental health issues. When she had gone on the web, she liked the fact that MHA’s website mentioned the importance of “education” about mental health issues. In exploring that a bit more, she said that a number of the people in her life found it difficult to see her mental health challenges as real, that she should somehow be able to overcome them herself.
About 10:15, we all walked over to the gym and I would estimate there were about 300 students sitting in the assembly who comprised the teams for the 10 charities who were receiving donations. For the next hour and a half, each of the team leaders got up and talked about their connection to the mission of their charity and introduced the charity representative, who then talked for a few minutes about their organization and mission. When Victoria introduced me, she talked about her own struggles with anxiety – that three years ago she had suffered from paralyzing anxiety attacks – but that at the encouragement of her school counselor she was receiving treatment and doing better.
What was totally impressive to me was not only the courage that Victoria showed in telling her story, but the empathy and compassion with which her fellow students responded. When it was my turn to speak, I remarked that, if the compassion and commitment to public service that they all had was typical of their generation, then we didn’t have to worry about the future! I also encouraged them to follow Victoria’s example and work to overcome the stigma and shame around mental illness.
I want to thank Principal Ryan Smith, Dean Gray, and all the administrators, staff and teachers at Norwalk High School for creating an environment where students can express their giving, caring natures – their best selves. It was truly a remarkable event, an MHA is honored to have been a part of it. Thank you!