By Christian Buonfiglio, Guest Writer

Before graduating from the Foundation Academies’ Collegiate Academy, a public charter school in Trenton, New Jersey, each student must take a Civic Service-Learning course. Though the course is facilitated by English teacher Colleen DiDonato, the students, who are all in their junior or senior year, develop their service-learning projects together. This year, students from the course have led a service-learning project that has changed the lives of their fellow students — and changed the school itself.

One group of artists, athletes, and young leaders, led by then-junior Nomy Yanes-Castro, all saw the same need in their school’s community: The need to address the mental-health concerns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. With students attending remote classes, separated from friends and teachers, and the threat of illness all around them, students’ mental health was at risk even if they were able to stay safe from COVID. Additionally, the students wanted to focus on how mental illness affects people of color, specifically.

“We really wanted to encourage students to address their issues [along] with others, so everyone really connects, and forms a bond over their mental health, and can really stop the stigmatization,” M.I.N.D. Project member Joscelynn Bernal said on The Power of Young People to Change the World, NYLC’s podcast.

Service-Learning in a Pandemic

These students decided to put together the M.I.N.D. Project, short for “Mental Illness Needs to be Destigmatized.” The students met virtually twice a week to plan, discuss, and set their own SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-based). DiDonato facilitated their project by pitching them questions that would aid their critical thinking, as well as looking for community organizations with whom they could partner.

“We gave ideas; she gave us ways to make it reality,” Yanes-Castro said.

With DiDonato’s help, the students have formed an ongoing partnership with the mental health nonprofit Walt’s Waltz to help their classmates destigmatize and quantify their struggles with mental illness. The students also took an 8-hour training from Walt’s Waltz where they learned how to discuss mental illness and what to say (or avoid saying) to those dealing with mental illness.

Navigating Challenges

Though the students were worried that their project would have little impact, the positive feedback from the students’ peers was immediate. More than 40 students attended the two virtual M.I.N.D Resource Fairs – one on the subject of anxiety, the other on depression. Students opened up around each other, drawing self-portraits to portray themselves in a positive light, and writing poetry to express themselves. The unexpected surge of interest did result in a bit of “winging it,” according to Yanes-Castro, but the group plans to account for this in the future as they discuss bringing students back in the fall.

Understanding just how serious mental illness can be, DiDonato helped the students maintain strong boundaries throughout the process. They stressed to the participating students that none of them were mental health experts, and none of them could diagnose one another with mental illnesses. Additionally, the school’s social worker was present at both of the Resource Fairs to talk with anyone who wanted to open up separately from the group.

Taking the Project to Scale

The thorough understanding of mental illness shown by the students, along with their commitment to community partnership and addressing their peers’ needs, has cemented M.I.N.D. as a full-fledged school club going forwards, still student-led and teacher-facilitated as they build the conversation around mental illness. Next October, the group is even planning on hosting a carnival, with the proceeds going to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Not only that, the students have helped change the very structure of Foundations Academy. The administration responded to the M.I.N.D Project by building socialization into the school day itself, in the form of weekly blocks for students to attend clubs and explore their interests. Additionally, DiDonato is seeking to bring service-learning to other classrooms, and ensure that the practice is not relegated to one particular class.

Finally, the M.I.N.D. Project also received NYLC’s own Youth Leadership for Service-Learning Excellence Award, and with it a $1,000 grant to put towards their club’s activities next year.

“It just shows how you never know what you are able to accomplish until you try,” Yanes-Castro said.

The M.I.N.D. Project is a strong example of youth/adult partnership in service-learning. The project was directed by the students themselves, working on an issue they cared about deeply, and fighting to meet the needs of their fellow students. Their teacher provided them with resources and advice, serving as a guide rather than a leader, and trusting her students to meet the challenges they faced head-on, while also ensuring that they were prepared to treat the subject of mental health with care and responsibility.

To learn more about the M.I.N.D. Project, visit the Foundation Academies Blog.

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