There is no magic wand for providing effective proactive mental health education. Support for each person is an unique mix of self and community care. As a teacher, this can be hard because we often ask, “What should we do about…?” while relying on tangible data to determine our next steps and progress. When we work on mental health strategies, results are often more internal and hard to quantify.
In the midst of this intricacy, there are a few things I know for sure. I know that providing children with a sense of belonging matters. Setting, monitoring, and achieving goals establishes a sense of purpose with eyes cast on the future. When children know they are important to others, they can gain a sense of their individual value within a larger community. Helping young people find their personal valves of self-expression promotes positive self-care and awareness of ways to decompress during stressful moments.
The skateboard park at SOS Children’s Village in Kigali, Rwanda is a breathing example of a mental health prevention network. From 3:00 – 6:00 PM each day, children converge from all directions on this colorful play place. Led by Skateaid volunteers, hopeful skaters take brooms in hands to clear dust from the previous day and prepare the park for the whooshes and rolls of flying decks. A collection of boards and donated shoes line the entrance ramp as eager children anticipate their moments in the spotlight and dream of floating through the air with varied levels of expertise.
Some of the smaller children, tentatively stand on boards, soaking in the support of the volunteers and the shouting encouragement of their peers, as well-versed senior skaters practice flips and dips along the curving ramps.
On one special Saturday afternoon, I arrived at the park for the highly-hyped skateboard competition. When market-shopping for gifts on the previous day, Tim (from Skate Aid) and I anticipated attendance of about 100 children. We confidently carried our load of shopping bags away from the market, filled with clothing, toothbrushes, toys, candy, and other treats. As the afternoon proceeded, cheering grew to a fevered pitch – well beyond the screams of 100 and my confidence in having gifts for everyone began to wane.
The Skate Aid volunteers, Tim, Maxim, and Pat kept this wily crew organized with their bullhorn, shouting names of competitors with high shouts of directions and praise.
For hours, kids stayed focused, as they watched others – ranging from youngest to oldest – take their turns swooshing across the steep curves and ramps of the park. Big tricks received an uproar of screams and raucous name-chants. Big falls received silent moments of fear that quickly turned to laughs and cheers as the skater dusted off and jumped back on the board – seemingly trying to convince the crowd that the blip never occurred.
The rapidly approaching sunset forced the competition to a close with the final, most advanced skaters wow-ing the crowd with their skilled leaps and tricks. As the judges deliberated, children gathered with anticipation in a large circle to learn who garnered the coveted prizes. Our hope was to provide gifts for everyone, but the rushing masses made it a challenge – with the judges quickly surrounded by a flurry of hands and bodies hoping to score some goods.
The final moments were a bit chaotic…with the Skate Aid volunteers masterfully managing to hold onto some of those treats for another day – while also being the kind of teachers who used the chaos as an opportunity for learning.
I used to pass skateboard parks with limited understanding of the positive role they can play in the lives of young people. Luckily, Skate Aid has a vision for using this method of self expression to build children up, help them to set and achieve goals, teach them that they matter, and show the power of community.