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A place with space

In three weeks, Kate Joss-Bradley will walk across the Lithia Park bandshell stage to collect her diploma and, though the Ashland High School senior has (mostly) enjoyed her time at AHS, even taking on an important leadership role as student body co-president, she also has no trouble admitting that, for her at least, June 2 … cannot …. get ….. here ….... soon …..... enough.

Her high school journey has had its ups and downs, the lowest down being a bout with depression and anxiety her junior year which she overcame, but only after missing school for two months. During her time away, Joss-Bradley learned a lot about herself and returned to school stronger and more confident. She also came back with a newfound empathy for silent sufferers, students for whom the pressures of academic survival and social acceptance become, contrary to the smiling selfies they post on social media, simply overwhelming. They are many, Joss-Bradley says, and their numbers cross all subsets and demographics, from overachievers like her who load their schedules with advanced placement courses and extracurricular activities to those who are just trying to get by.

“It was originally to get help and to find a way out,” she said of her break from school, “but it ended up being a journey of self discovery, finding myself a little more and learning actually how to take care of myself in a system and an environment that really pushes you physically and intellectually and completely ignores mental and emotional health.”

Yes, Joss-Bradley says, the school has counselors who are great at what they do, but her experience revealed to her a blind spot in the school’s approach to mental health and, after finding her way thanks in part to “outside help,” Joss-Bradley returned to AHS determined to help students who shared her pain.

“So, coming back from that, I was really passionate about supporting the emotional health and well-being of students, because I wasn’t able to get that through the high school and not many students are,” she said. “And I thought how incredibly useful it would be if students could have a place, or even just a mindset shift of, 'OK, we can focus and take care of our emotional well-being,' because, in fact, taking care and supporting our mental lives we’ll do better intellectually, we’ll do better in school and sports and extracurriculars, as well as just taking care of yourself.

“It comes, fundamentally, down to just learning how to take care of yourself and being able to support yourself, even when it seems like everything is working against you. So I came back and decided to use my leadership position as co-president to create this space.”

“This space” is the new Ashland High School Wellness Center, which officially opened for business Monday in room H-39, a formerly unused room on the top floor of the humanities building. Joss-Bradley and her cadre of student volunteers cleaned it up, painted the drab concrete walls a light blue, a book shelf dark blue, threw down some bean bags and stocked the shelves with books and magazines.

The Wellness Center will be open every school day and staffed with peer mentors trained in crisis intervention and adults from all walks of life who have counseling experience and/or training. Many of the adults involved, Joss-Bradley said, are volunteers for The Rose Circle, an Ashland-based mentoring network that partners with local agencies, schools and organizations to serve youth and train mentors.

AHS principal Erika Bare offered a resounding thumbs up to Joss-Bradley's idea, but wasn’t quite sure how the ambitious student should proceed. Joss-Bradley knew she wanted peer mentors to play a role. An intern for Inner Guide Expeditions,  has experience mentoring peers and has seen the positive impacts such mentorships produce first-hand.

Joss-Bradley whipped up some applications and distributed them throughout the school. The strategy seemed only logical, which is why she was so crestfallen when the exact opposite turned out to be true. Only two applications were returned.

In the months that followed, Joss-Bradley often found herself describing her vision to friends, and friends of friends, and acquaintances. One of those acquaintances was Lilli Morrish, who, as a 14-year-old freshman doesn’t necessarily have a lot in common with a senior who’s preparing to move to Southeast Asia after graduation. But Morrish heard Joss-Bradley describe the center, admired the passion with which she spoke and recognized the void the center was supposed to fill as one that did exist. Morrish was sold.

“Teenage years are not really something we associate with a nice stable relationship with yourself, your body, the people around you and most of all your mental and emotional health,” Morrish said. “You’re not feeling good all the time, and being able to address that and being able to grow and learn in healthy ways is something very, very important and is something that isn’t really addressed.”

Morrish’s testimony and commitment to the project illustrates Joss-Bradley’s somewhat surprising discovery that, when it comes to convincing students and adults alike to donate their time, spray-info campaigns, no matter how wide the net is cast, are no match for a good old fashioned face-to-face.

“(The Wellness Center) is actually a physical representation of supporting and connecting and growing ourselves emotionally,” Joss-Bradley said. “The root of this project for me comes from that, but I haven’t talked about that with many people. … I felt like a salesperson going around from class-to-class with these applications and that didn’t really work. What did work were these more intimate conversations about my idea and vision that people heard, and the people who were really interested and curious came forward.”

People like junior Sienna Ross, who, like all the other student volunteers, committed to an all-day retreat training session held in March.

Another AHS high-achiever who's a member of its state championship speech and debate team, Ross believes the center could become a vital space at the school, which is part of the reason she wants to assume a leadership role next school year.

“I like to use the analogy, if you have anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and you have a panic attack in the classroom because you’re just so overwhelmed or something’s happening at home, where do you go?” she said. “You can’t go to the bathroom because there are five other people in there. Can’t use the nurse — our school-based clinic is more focused on immediate treatment of physical injuries. So this is like a quiet space, somewhere to go and sit for a bit, and resources are available. There are coloring books, there are pillows to lie down on to meditate, there’s a yoga class adjacent to the room, and then there are the peer mentors to talk to if one needs to talk about things, and we’ve had the training and experience to be able to do that.”

Counselors and parents may have a hard time relating to the unique pressures today’s teenagers deal with, she added, so if nothing else the Wellness Center will be the go-to place students can, even for a short time, find a little relief.

“It’s more competitive than ever so that’s always looming in the back of my mind,” Ross said. “The grades obviously take up so much time, but you also have the pressure to have the picture-perfect resume to give to the colleges. You want to have a balance of activities and be climate justice warriors, but also be really good at math and have really good essay writing skills. I feel like our lives are sort of dictated by numbers, like GPA, and hopefully this space will be a place where you can get away from those numbers.”

Monday’s grand opening was thrilling, but also a bit of a relief for Joss-Bradley. She's only a teenager, and hacking through all the red-tape bureaucracy of a public institution can be a monumental task, even for an adult. But, Joss-Bradley reasoned, somebody had to do it. And besides, one thing she's learned from experience is that somebody with a big heart and healthy mind — even a high-schooler still finding her way — can overcome a lot.

“The space was perfect and the administration was interested,” she said. “I don’t really believe that they thought that it could happen and that a student or a group of students could take it on, but everyone was interested in hearing more so it kept growing and ideas kept sprouting. And now we’re here.”

Donations to the Wellness Center can be made through the Ashland Schools Foundation website at ashlandschoolsfoundation.org; click on the "Donate Now" button and specify in the comments field that the donation is for the AHS Wellness Center.

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.