EVERETT — The knot in Note Suwanchote’sstomach began every day at 11 a.m.
It forced him to carefully consider how to navigate the lunch line at school so no one would discover he was eligible for a free or reduced lunch.
The knot would last five years — through middle school and high school.
“I didn’t want my friends to know. We were very poor. We came from Bangkok when I was four. When we got here, we shared a studio apartment with four other people,” the Seattle-based filmmaker told some 70 teens and young adults at a recent mental health conference at Everett Community College.
There’s an old adage: It shouldn’t matter what others think, he said.
But it does matter — the fear, the apprehension can spiral into anxiety and depression.
“I was filled with fear and anxiety,” said Suwanchote, 30.
His story had kids nodding and exchanging knowing looks with one another.
Suwanchote offered his story to teens who attended “Emotion Commotion: Connecting and Leading Through Mental Wellness and Self Expression,” a half-day event organized by members of Leadership Launch.
The nonprofit was organized eight years ago by Mukilteo resident Rachel Kittle as an informal mentoring group for five at-risk kids. Today it has 22 members and many alumni.
Each year, the group organizes a community service project. Past efforts include celebrations of cultural diversity and a free mobile dental clinic.
This year’s project was a no-brainer — a focus on mental health.
According to a Centers for Disease Control report, more than a third of high school students experienced poor mental health last year, and 44% reported feeling “persistently” sad or hopeless.
More than half of respondents said they were emotionally abused by a parent or adult in the home; 11% reported physical abuse, including hitting, beating or kicking.
Lesbian, gay and bisexual teens reported greater levels of poor mental health and emotional abuse by a parent or caregiver, and a third of students said they experienced racism before or during the pandemic, the report said.
For the past two years, Jeslyn Kelso, a Kamiak High School senior and a member of Leadership Launch, watched as fellow students struggled with anxiety and depression.
“After the pandemic, I felt like we all needed a place to get together and take care of ourselves,” Kelso said.
From poetry and rock painting to improv and martial arts, event activities were designed to appeal to introverted and outgoing teens alike, said Glenda Wabaluku, 17, a senior at Kamiak and a Leadership Launch member. Wabaluku brought along her 15-year-old sister, Glodie, a freshman.
In workshops and small groups, kids shared stories of trying to fit in a new foster family, trying to get along with a step-dad or step-mom, or trying to reconcile with a brother or sister.
Kathy Coffey Solberg’s poetry workshop invited kids to write about where they were from.
Many shared their words aloud:
• “I am from love. I am from the strawberry fields where my mom worked.”
• “I am from adoption and feeling lonely, from the drugs my mom took.”
• “I am from the streets of Brooklyn, from razor blades and crack vials.”
• “Anytime something inside of you needs to come out, grab a notebook and write,” Coffey Solberg told students. “Poetry can help you do that.”
Gracelynn Shibayama, another keynote speaker, offered a harrowing tale of adoption at age five and abandonment as a teen.
At age 16, her adoptive mother kicked her out of the house for “causing too much damage to the family,” she said.
Shibayama went to live with an aunt and uncle who insisted she go to therapy.
“I thought it was a waste of time,” she said.
Four years later, her 25-year-old brother died of a heroin overdose. She sought counseling.
“We all need therapy,” Shibayama told participants. “We all need some support and help.”
Shibayama graduated from the University of Washington Bothell in 2015. Today she is an events coordinator at the Edmonds Center for the Arts.
“I was asked to be a presenter,” she said afterward. “I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say.”
Sitting in on Coffey Solbert’s poetry class gave her the courage, she said, to reveal the heartbreak and chaos that enveloped her childhood.
“I could see people were dealing with some heavy emotions,” Shibayama said.
John Rollins, board president of Leadership Launch, offered kids a unique way to look at their families and how they fit through the creation of a “family sculpture.”
His own childhood was marked by a step-father who wanted only one thing, he said: “to beat the s— out of us.”
Participants chose other teens to stand in for family members and then assembled them in front of the class.
“This is my mom and dad. I’m standing next to them because we’re close. These are my brothers — I put them on the other side of the room because we’re not close,” a teenager said to explain her configuration.
Another teen put her biological father in a far corner of the classroom. “He’s out of the picture,” he said.
Kelsey McIver, 15, a student at Snohomish High School, formed a family sculpture that included someone to stand in for her twin sister, who had died at birth.
Rollins invited her to hug the person who was standing in for her sister. McIver choked back tears.
“It was hard to share that experience,” she said later.
The experience, McIver said, helped her see “that we all come from different backgrounds. We all have our struggles and and need to appreciate everyone.”
“We shared some pretty big stuff today,” Rollins said in closing the exercise. “Emotions around this can be overwhelming.”
Mohamed Abdi, 24, a Tukwila City Council member, led teens in the creation of “vision boards” — posters to reflect who they were or what they aspired to.
Regina Lewis, 18, a student at Seattle Pacific University and a Leadership Launch member, sat on the floor with her sister, Izabel, 12. The two picked up a scissors and cut out words and images from magazines to illustrate their boards.
When the pandemic struck, Regina Lewis was a student at ACES High School in Everett. Her final year of high school evaporated.
“I was a senior when COVID happened,” Lewis said. “It was hard for me, switching from virtual to hybrid to in-person. I got depressed. I had panic and anxiety.”
“Students in high school and college are struggling. This is a way to help them,” she said of the event.
Janice Podsada: 425-339-3097; email@example.com;
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