What started as a conversation among a half dozen Woodgrove High School students a few years ago has blossomed into a countywide movement to make sure their classmates know they aren’t alone in their everyday stresses.
This month, students from seven Loudoun County high schools are holding We’re All Human walks and assemblies to share with 9,000 of their peers that help is available for their feelings of hopelessness.
The first We’re All Human walk and assembly was held at Woodgrove High School in 2016 as the county began to see a rise in suicides among teens. The walks and assemblies are now held each April at Briar Woods, Heritage, Riverside, Loudoun Valley and Broad Run high schools. Each of the walks is organized by the schools’ We’re All Human clubs, which equips students to help their peers cope with stress, anxiety and depression. Staff members and groups of students at those seven high schools are also trained in Sources of Strength, an evidence-led suicide prevention program.
The Ryan Bartel Foundation, which was founded by the parents of a Woodgrove senior who took his life in 2014, partners with the student-led clubs to set their work into motion. Suzie Bartel, Ryan’s mother and founder of the organization, said students first talk and rely on one another when they’re in trouble as opposed to adults, so her goal since she lost her son has been to equip students to help their peers.
“Students who participate in We’re All Human Clubs are empowered to use their own faces and voices that focus on stories of strength rather than stories of trauma,” she said. “Recognizing that their voices have power and influence over their peers, they use them to create activities and positive messaging campaigns that interact with and engage the rest of the school population to encourage a change of behavior as well as break the silence when someone is struggling and connect them to the help they deserve.”
Heritage High School held its second annual We’re All Human walk and assembly this morning, inviting students and school employees to share messages of hope and kindness and walk around the campus in memory of lives lost to suicide.
As he watched the students run this morning’s assembly, Heritage Principal Jeff Adam said he’s noticed a positive change among the student body and the faculty since the We’re All Human club started two years ago.
“Everyone has embraced this idea of treating each other better,” he said. “Among the faculty, we talk more often about what we can do when students come to us for help. All of this really goes along with having a safer, more inclusive school environment.”
The public is invited to take part in the We’re All Human walk and assembly from 10:30 a.m. to noon Thursday, April 19, at Woodgrove High School.
In the spirit of empowering teens, the Ryan Bartel Foundation also recently launched a monthly program that’s been described as a kind of pop-up teen center. The program, called The FORT, connects teens with other young people and trusted adults, and also provides free workshops to teach teens resiliency and inner strength. Workshops include meditation, yoga, expressive arts, dog therapy and related activities in mindfulness, mental health and well-being.
The FORT’s next gathering is from 2-5 p.m. Sunday, April 29, at Fusion Academy, 19300 Promenade Drive Suite 200 in Lansdowne. It is open to 13- to 21-year-olds. It is free, but interested attendees are asked to select their preferred workshops and register at ryanbartelfoundation.org/the-fort.