Last week I had the pleasure of meeting with Delaware high school seniors Araceli Scott and Chainie Yates, as well as District Equity Coordinator Adrienne Stansbury. Araceli and Chainie attend Mount Pleasant High School in Delaware’s Brandywine School District, and, along with Adrienne, have been a part of a district-wide team facilitated by UP for Learning over the past two years. Their project, the “Zen Den”- a mental health space in the school staffed by a social worker – is an incredible example of what is possible when youth and adults work together to make transformative change in their school communities. The following are edited excerpts from a conversation that we had about the space, and how it all came together. 

What was the origin of the Zen Den’s creation?

During one of  UP for Learning’s retreats last spring, the team went over the Panorama Student Survey that the student body had taken, and we decided to focus on mental health; it arose as one of the top concerns from the survey. 

What were your initial steps as you began envisioning the space? Describe your process.

Originally the room was supposed to be an upgrade from the “turnaround room” (which serves as a space for dysregulated students to go for 15 minutes). We shouldn’t automatically assume that kids are acting out for no reason; there is usually more going on. When we brought the idea to the principal, they said that it should be a separate room. We applied for grants over the summer, and created a “Donors Choose” fundraising webpage. We then began the process of hiring a social worker and a coordinator to run the space. 

What does the Zen Den look like?

It is a regular classroom, but half of it has bean bags, a library/bookshelf of mental health and coloring books, diffusers, etc. These materials were donated through our Donors Choose website. The other half is run by the social worker, and is where they host group discussions. 

What challenges have you run into along the way, and how have you overcome them?

The first challenge was getting the room because it felt like at first we weren’t on the same page of urgency and necessity for the room. Once we got the room, everything came together! Finding the social worker/coordinator took a long time; they had to be hired by the people who gave us the grant. That process took place over a couple of months. Because we were planning during the summer, it was often hard to communicate with the administration. We are also making a mural for the room, and considering what should go on it was challenging. We didn’t want the artwork to be too sensitive or overbearing. We are going to have an image of a brain in the formation of a tree and have different images in the branches that are mental health coping skills, like music, a paintbrush, and books.  

What has been the outcome of creating this space? What has been the reaction from the student body?

We are starting to see more open conversations about mental health. The creation of this space helps us see that we are not alone. We’ve created a space for students to be more vocal; a key piece is that the creation of this space stemmed from using data. We made an informed decision on top of hearing from individuals that this was a concern. When mental health comes up in conversation, people tend to talk about the downward side, rather than the positive. Happiness, joy, peace are also a part of it. At the end of the day, it’s all about asking, are you OK? The creation of this space contributes to that conversation. 

What are your next steps? What are your hopes and dreams for the Zen Den?

We hope that it can soon be fully open  for students, as many are experiencing seasonal depression right now, and it could be an added resource for them to use. We also hope that the legacy we created will continue, and that the space can help students through hard times. Generally there isn’t an awareness of all the resources available-at the school, and we hope it can make it easier for students to access mental health resources. Administrative support is so key, and we hope they can help to carry the torch. We are excited to see the room continue to have a presence and to make sure students are aware of it. 

What have each of you learned along the way? Are there any recommendations you would give to school teams undertaking a similar project? 

Araceli: “I’ve learned persistence and patience.” 

Chainie: “You need to use the resources and the people around you to get what you’re going for.” 

Adrienne: “Everyone needs a person on the side that is willing to help and support. When we first started talking about the room, we experienced  little hiccups along the way. It’s important to stay focused on the goal. We all seem to have the “microwave mentality,” that things should be completed instantly. But if you think of food, the space is like a healthy meal; it requires time and prep and planning and organizing. You have to know what your goal is and how you want to achieve it. In working with youth and partnering with them, I’ve learned how to be a sounding board – to take a step back and offer advice, not directives.” 

Is there anything else about the project that you would like to share? 

Our campaign for opening the space includes an assembly focused on mental health featuring professional experts  to speak to students. Before or after assembly we will be handing out cards with the Zen Den’s mission, vision, a list of resources, as well as guidance on using the space respectfully.