With the concept of “Belonging and Mattering” at the forefront, members of the Mercer Island Healthy Youth Initiative (HYI) coalition rolled out the annual MI Healthy Youth Forum on the evening of Jan. 31.
With a plethora of eager students, parents, educators and counselors in attendance at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center, the forum focused on unleashing a community dialogue on how to provide teens maximum support and lead them on a healthy path with their families and Youth and Family Services (YFS) by their side. YFS workers are always available to provide substance use prevention, mental health promotion and more.
Within the “In Their Words” video presented at the event, locals teens described the challenges and stress they face each day while reaching for success in school and in life. They strive to overcome those obstacles through journaling, baking and more, and encourage their parents to chip in by connecting with them and listening to their daily experiences on the Island.
Elevating students’ voices was a critical element of the event, said Michelle Ritter, HYI project coordinator and YFS Prevention Programs coordinator. Chris Harnish, YFS Mercer Island High School prevention specialist, said the purpose of the forum was for attendees to learn from and listen to each other and share ideas in the main event room and in a private student-counselor breakout session.
Mercer Island School District Superintendent Fred Rundle led the “In Their Words” portion of the event and praised students Sophie Hill and Chloe Yang for their integral roles in producing the video with others in the KMIH 88.9 The Bridge and MIHS.TV realm.
Hill discussed her reason for helping bring the video to life: “I’ve struggled with my mental health in the past and I didn’t really know other people were going through the same thing. So when I overcame that, I felt the urge to try and do something to improve well-being of other students, so I started with radio and I talked about it on a podcast that I do.”
Added Yang about the crucial message within the video: “I know a lot of kids at the school are really stressed and I think that it’s important for all students to know that they’re not alone.”
Ritter presented KMIH with the Prevention Champions Award for partnering with YFS and HYI on projects, and airing public service announcements and shows where students discuss the importance of mental health. MIHS.TV joins the radio station as a solid prevention partner as well, Ritter added.
After returning from their breakout session, several students took to the microphone to deliver the results from a reflection activity about mattering and belonging.
Ina Shapiro and Connor Wood advised parents to engage in activities with their children, and have an open dialogue to discuss topics that everyone is interested in — and not just school-related matters.
“It’s the little things and the little moments that really count. It means times that you have with your family to talk and they aren’t structured (conversations),” said student Julius Perez, noting that any topic can be on the table. “It’s something that’s really really important to stick to.”
Added Savanna Rousell about how to courteously participate in a conversation: “If someone is talking to you, put down what you’re doing and just listen. I really appreciate it when I’m talking to someone and they fully stop and just look at me and acknowledge (me) and respond back to what I’m saying.”
Ritter said that parenting doesn’t come with a manual and the family leaders are figuring everything out as they go.
Parents Tessa Lowe and Jean McDougall said they received stellar advice from the high schoolers regarding the importance of the tiny moments to make them feel seen and heard, connecting on subjects that matter to their kids and listening to them the whole the way.
To help adults along their parenting journey, YFS will soon be offering a Parenting Mercer Island (Tools for Your Child’s Success) website.
Acclaimed author Jennifer B. Wallace also joined the forum on a video message aimed at uplifting the Island students and commending YFS for implementing the HYI.
Wallace’s book, “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic — And What We Can Do About It,” features stories of Island students, families, educators and healthcare professionals.
“I encourage the youth in the room to be open about sharing your thoughts and experiences. These adults are here tonight because you matter. You are enough. You belong in the Mercer Island community,” she said.
As forum attendees entered and exited the event, they strolled by a pair of tables that were blanketed by posters emblazoned with the written hopes and dreams of local students and parents.
Some of the hopeful messages were: “Awesome day every day.” “I want to be happy and safe. I also want people I love to be happy and safe.” “Empathetic, understanding, loving.” “Strong, passionate, caring.”
For more information, visit www.MIHealthyYouth.com.