Community Forum on Bullying @ TCPL

The newly formed Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force announced Tuesday that it will sponsor a community forum on youth bullying and harassment at the Tompkins County Public Library (TCPL) on June 15.

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Members of the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force

The forum will feature reports from the Task Force’s Working Group on the prevalence and impact of bullying and potential school and public programs and campaigns to address the issue. The forum will also provide an opportunity for members of the public to share knowledge and suggestions for promoting bullying-free communities.

“Working together to create communities where all young people feel safe and that they belong, the Bullying Prevention Task Force is inviting members of the public to come and learn more about the work that has been done so far and to help us envision the next steps for this regional initiative,” said Jaydn McCune, a Racker program director and forum organizer. “We hope to see anybody who has been touched by the issue of bullying, whether you are a young person, family member, community member, or provider.”

Representatives from 28 government agencies, community organizations, and local schools formed the Task Force in March to explore the prevalence of youth bullying and strategies to combat it.

“The Bullying Prevention Task Force has brought together parents, students, service providers, school personnel, and community members to better understand the resources and strategies needed to take on the serious issue of bullying,” said Bridgette Nugent, Tompkins County Youth Services Department deputy director and Task Force co-coordinator. “The Task Force is energized to take real action to address a very real problem in our community.”

The forum will be held from 10 a.m.-12 Noon in the BorgWarner Community Room of the Tompkins County Public Library. Students, parents, teachers, school administrators, social workers, and all members of the public are welcome.

 

A Film by Carlos Hernandez Rivera

Carlos Hernandez Rivera looks into the camera with all the beautiful innocence of a young man who loves science and Boy Scouts. But then his words describe two deaths—and his own determination to prevent such tragedies in the future. “I’m Carlos, and I was affected by suicide,” he says. “Two people that were close to me died within a short span of time.”

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Screenshot from The Damaging and the Uniting

So begins The Damaging and the Uniting, a short film produced, written, and directed by Hernandez Rivera, 14, to be screened at Cinemopolis June 6, about his experience of losing two friends to suicide during the current school year—Elliott Green, 16, a close buddy since Lansing Middle School, and Ryan Sibley, 14, a ninth-grade classmate this year at P-Tech Academy.

“This movie is personal,” Hernandez Rivera said before a private screening last week at P-Tech, a magnet high school/early college program in computer science and advanced manufacturing at TST BOCES. “I wanted to help, I wanted to help as many people as I can. I am motivated to help other people so they don’t go through tough times and so that suicide is not a problem anymore.”

The idea for the film came as Hernandez Rivera was developing a freshman-year capstone project. After Elliott’s death in March, Hernandez consulted with his teacher, Sunshine Miller, and decided to create a video that could raise awareness about mental health and promote suicide prevention. Then in April, as Hernandez Rivera was story boarding the film, came the terrible news that Ryan, his P-Tech science lab partner, had taken his own life.

Hernandez Rivera dedicates the film to Elliott and Ryan. He and Elliott had been pals for years. One of Hernandez’s fondest memories is of the two-day, 100-mile biking trip the duo made with another friend around Cayuga Lake last summer. They shared a passion for Boy Scouts—Elliott’s father is a scoutmaster—but were not above messing around, like the time they tried to sink each other’s canoes in a water-gun fight.

Hernandez Rivera remembers Ryan as an easy-going guy who was fun to hang around with. In the film, Hernandez Rivera includes a still image of a smiling Ryan at school wearing a “Family Guy” T-shirt. Their tight-knit class of 19 students had just taken a field trip to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. “He seemed happy on that trip,” Hernandez recalled. Ryan was an accomplished wrestler, who had recently become a Seaman recruit in the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps.

Hernandez Rivera interviews two women to further show the human face of suicide and loss—Beth Dryer, who lost a younger brother, Brian, 25; and Melissa Addy, whose son Max died by suicide at 22. “It refocused my priorities in life, time was short,” recalled Dryer, adding, after an emotional pause, “This is tough, so clearly it still has a major impact on my life.” When Hernandez Rivera asked Addy about “the one thing” she misses about her son, she touchingly replied, “I miss everything.”

Hernandez Rivera described the blow he felt after his mother told him that Elliott had passed away. “I was in a good rhythm, and then Elliott dies,” he said. “I started falling back in school, I wasn’t doing as well. Sometimes I would get lost. I would walk into a room and say, ‘Whoa, how did I get here?’ I would blank out sometimes.”

“Then I’d be like, ‘I’m here. I’m here. I got this,’” he added. “Self-motivation has got me through it. I changed when Elliot passed away. I felt like I had to do more things, I had to talk to people. To communicate with people, it is a good skill to have.”

Hernandez Rivera explained that making the film has helped in his own struggle with grief. “It has given me faith in myself, that even though there are obstacles that are huge, that we will face traumatic things in our lives, we can get back up, and keep pushing on,” he said.

Suicide is an extremely delicate and even taboo topic for schools, but Miller threw her full support behind the project. “Carlos has given me courage,” she explained. “It would have been easy to just say, ‘No, we’re not doing this.’ Adults make all the decisions, which are good in lot of ways, but we’re too quick to say, ‘Lets not talk about this.’ This has changed me. I hope Carlos’s courage can light the way for real change in our schools surrounding how we deal with suicide.”

“This is why I went into education,” said Barry Derfel, TST BOCES assistant superintendent, speaking to Hernandez Rivera at the private screening at P-Tech last week. “I am really proud of the work that you have done. This is what school should be. At P-Tech, we collaborate with families, business, and community, to create fully accessible, meaningful, and relevant curricula. I don’t think here is anything more meaningful and relevant than this, that’s culturally responsive and sustaining.”

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Carlos Hernandez Rivera

Hernandez Rivera consulted Lee-Ellen Marvin of Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service about conducting the interviews used in the film. He also had the help of Ithaca filmmaker Redouane Elghazi in the filming and editing. He won the support of the P-Tech administration not only to tackle suicide in a class project—and one involving the school itself—but to go forward with a public screening at Cinemopolis, Ithaca’s first-run movie theater specializing in independent, foreign, and locally produced films.

Hernandez Rivera’s dreams “are all over the place”— he thinks about becoming a global-warming scientist, working for NASA, or Space X, and even Tesla. For now, though, he is hoping that his film will help spread awareness about mental health.

“My goal is so that this doesn’t become an issue anymore, that suicide is a thing of the past,” he said. “We should realize that not everyone is as happy as they seem. Some people do need talking to, even if they look happy. If we’re having a bad day and we are mean to other people, just be nice.”

—By Scott MacLeod

Scott MacLeod is a co-founder of The Sophie Fund

The Damaging and the Uniting will be screened for the public June 6 from 5-6 p.m. and 6-7 p.m. @Cinempolis, 120 East Green Street, Ithaca, NY. 14850. Admission is free of charge.

The Damaging and The Uniting

 

 

A Little Help from Your Friends

Young people are often bewildered about mental health and mental illness, and Melanie Little loves explaining the difference to them. “When I asked high school students to define mental health, some of them didn’t know what to say,” said Little, director of Youth Services at the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County (MHA). “Others said it was ‘the wellbeing of the mind.’ Being mentally healthy is the ability to make positive decisions, cope with difficult emotions and enjoy one’s life, whereas mental illness is diagnosable and disrupts a person’s ability to carry out daily activities.”

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Melanie Little and the Kids First Summer Camp

Little empathizes with struggling teens. She’s been there herself. Originally from Rochester, she battled mental illness during her youth.

As Little, 27, recalls her own experiences growing up, her mental health issues were not taken seriously. Adults blamed her discontent on typical teen mood swings. She didn’t fit the stereotypes around mental illness; she earned good grades and had close connections in her life. However, this did not alleviate the pain she felt or obviate her need for help. It was not until Little attended Ithaca College in 2009 that she finally reached out to receive treatment.

Little has always been interested in social justice and in striving to make positive change in the community. She yearned to provide guidance for young people in a way that she felt had been lacking in her own upbringing. She heard about MHA’s Kids First Summer Camp, a program designed for children ages 5-18 experiencing a wide range of internal or external struggles, and quickly signed up to become a camp counselor. It was a summer job, but turned out to be the first stepping stone in a career path as a community mental health educator and advocate.

At Kids First, Little learned valuable lessons about mental health and the significance of working directly with children. “Sometimes it feels like you are getting nowhere,” said Little. “Mental health can’t be fixed overnight. But, people don’t need to be ‘fixed.’ They just need to harness their strengths, which takes time. You have to trust yourself and trust the process. You don’t always get to see the progress, but you’re planting seeds.”

Over time, Little watched as the children in the summer camp began to open up and grow closer to their peers and the adult supervisors. She learned how to discipline and set limits for the children while remaining compassionate and empathetic about the kids’ variety of personalities and needs.

“A common misconception is that all children who struggle come from broken homes or have a lower socioeconomic status,” said Little. “However, some of the children had families that were perfectly stable and loving. Mental illness can be genetic or come from other external environmental factors. Mental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum.” Little finds it rewarding to work with children who she recognizes are capable of change and growth.

As the director of Youth Services, Little is responsible for a wide variety of tasks pertaining to community outreach, education and individual peer support and advocacy. Part of her community outreach involves visiting health classes in high schools and middle schools in the Ithaca City School District as a guest speaker in its mental health unit. She provides Mental Health and Wellness 101 courses for students, faculty, and parents. She also attends Parent Teacher Association meetings to educate adults. Little supervises recreational programs for young people at the MHA-affiliated Saturday Group Respite at the YMCA. She also carries out the Youth Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) that helps to decrease and prevent intrusive or troubling behaviors, increase personal empowerment, improve quality of life and help a young person take steps to achieve their goals.

In addition, Little serves MHA as a Mental Health First Aid instructor. She works to combat the stigma around mental illness and educates adults about how to recognize signs of mental illness and actively support family members, friends, colleagues, and others in a way that is non-judgmental. She informs trainees that “no one size fits all,” meaning each individual is different and must be treated with patience and care. She teaches that recovery is possible for everyone. MHA offers regular Mental Health First Aid courses for the general public. The Sophie Fund has sponsored special MHA training sessions for members of Ithaca’s food service community.

Although there tends to be more openness, progression, and awareness pertaining to mental health advocacy, Little believes that there is still an abundance of work to be done; she says that “roughly one in three Tompkins County high school students reported feeling sad or depressed most days.” Little intends to continue providing support, guidance, and mental health education for adolescents and adults. She believes that teaching about mental health and mental illness should be a crucial part of health classes in schools to have children understand their own minds from a younger age, and to grow into empathetic and aware adults. She also wants to take her advocacy work to the next level by going with a group of youth advocates to Albany to speak to legislators about providing more funding for mental health organizations and health classes in schools.

—By Nicole Kramer

Nicole Kramer, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a Class of 2019 Writing major and Sociology minor at Ithaca College. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwatera student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry. 

“You Have to Let Go”

Ashae Forsythe, a 21-year-old writing major at Ithaca College, strives to raise awareness about mental health through social media. On Facebook and Instagram, she promotes positivity by highlighting the little things that help you see everyday life through a happier lens. Forsythe’s friends and family tend to share her posts or message her directly via social media to show their appreciation of her kind and thoughtful words.

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Ashae Forsythe

Recently, Forsythe initiated another way to reach out to others: she facilitated a discussion on mental health aimed at fellow classmates from the Caribbean. She is originally from Portmore, Jamaica, and is an active member of the Caribbean Students Association on her campus. One of the things she wanted the participants to ponder is the relatively strong stigma around mental illness back home compared to the United States.

“I came to terms with my mental illness much more when I came to Ithaca,” said Forsythe. “College made me more open to talking about it because in Jamaica, mental illness wasn’t something people saw as normal. No one wanted to put other people in a discomforting position. In Jamaica, people had the mentality that ‘whatever you are struggling with, that’s life, you don’t have time to wallow in self-pity.’” She thinks one reason that Jamaicans put less focus on personal mental health is that they are generally consumed with more basic issues of survival in a country historically beset by low economic growth and high rates of poverty and crime.

Ithaca College provides mental health support through the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services and peer-to-peer organizations like Active Minds. Yet, Forsythe felt the need to organize an open discussion where students from the Caribbean could share their stories and work through personal issues in a space of mutual understanding and support. This discussion was geared toward Caribbean students and other students of color, but it was open to the public.

“I wanted to create a safe space where people of color could talk about their struggles and experiences of getting families to understand their mental state,” she explained. “I wanted to address cultural practices and habits that exacerbate trends that further diminish mental health.”

It was the first time that the Caribbean Students Association had focused a meeting on mental health, and the members proceeded to share intimate experiences about how their parents tended to ignore certain thoughts and feelings that needed to be worked through and cathartically released.

Some of the students addressed ways in which they wouldn’t want to be like their parents, or things they wished their parents would have done better in child rearing. Nonetheless, they expressed how they were accepting that their parents had their own sets of troubles and traumas, and that holding on to anger and regret was unproductive and unnecessary.

“Forgiving parents for the sake of self, without them having to say they’re sorry, is an eye-opening experience,” said Forsythe. “Holding negative emotions is toxic and exhausting and takes a toll on your mental health. You realize, you have to let go and advance forward.”

Forsythe hopes to collaborate with Ithaca College’s African Students Association to open the conversation to a larger group of people. Forsythe also wishes to open up a foundation in Portmore, to help provide resources, funding, and awareness for families and individuals whose lives are affected by mental illness.

—By Nicole Kramer

Nicole Kramer, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a Class of 2019 Writing major and Sociology minor at Ithaca College. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwatera student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry. 

A Day at the Alley Cat Café

Kristin recalls the afternoon when a troubled woman came into her Ithaca café. The woman had apparently just split up with a partner and was feeling the stress of managing her house and raising her children. “A cat came and laid on her chest, and she just started weeping,” said Kristin. “It was the first time she felt loved in a really long time.”

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Welcome to the Alley Cat Café on East Seneca Street, which has become a surprisingly popular downtown community hub since opening last June. As its name suggests, the establishment is a café, which offers drinks and tasty delights for customers who want to lounge for a while and for those on the run alike. But it is especially a haven for rescued cats with names like Luna, Ginny, and Mack, and Penelope and Millie Joy, who have their own large glassed-in quarters in the rear of the café where customers can play with them ($5 per 30 minutes) and adopt them if they wish.

Café owner Kristin, 36, who prefers to go by only her first name, has been rescuing abandoned and abused cats for two decades. She also runs Browncoat Cat Rescue, a volunteer organization that first took strides in 2012 to find and support abandoned cats in Ithaca to find new homes; Browncoat provides the cats for the Alley Cat Café and collects the $100 adoption fee. To date, according to Kristen, more than 20 cats rescued by Browncoat have been adopted from the Alley Cat Café.

At any given time of day, customers will be sipping a cappuccino or drinking tea in the front of the café while a handful of others will be canoodling with kittens in the back. You’ll see students popping in on the way to or from class, young lovers on dates, and parents with tons of kids in tow, all eager to hold a cat and take selfies with the feline menagerie.

There’s Freddy, with brown and black fur, and Clarissa, a ginger cat, who love to jump around with visitors. Among the most calming and relaxing cats is a sweet ginger kitty named Strawberry, the kind of cat who purrs on you, goes to sleep, and gives you the kind of connection many people need, Kristin said. Sitting on your lap, this kitten purrs at a healing frequency—the feline happiness helps heal human hearts, Kristin said.

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Everyday customers can enjoy a menu including items like lentil spinach soup and almond chocolate cupcakes. There’s also a long list of hot and cold beverages, many of them feline-themed (and served up by purr-istas, of course): The Cat Lady (mocha latte with lavender), The Black Cat (French press coffee with double espresso shot), and the Meowcchiato (double espresso with a dash of frothed milk).

Special events also bring in the crowds, such as Knitten’ Mittens with Kittens, Slow Flow Cat Yoga, craft afternoons, and board game nights (Exploding Kittens, Cat Stax); the café also hosts talks about gender, sexuality, and healthier relationships.

The cats, meanwhile, have their own entertainment: besides cuddling with their affectionate human visitors, they enjoy a Romper Room of high perches, hideaways, and meandering obstacle courses that allow them to leap or just sleep as they like. In December, Kristin inaugurated Movie Night—for the cats—with a film about bird watching.

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As the story of the weeping woman indicates, the Alley Cat Café functions as a de facto animal therapy space. “There are a lot of people who are missing their friends, or a sense of connection, and just being able to connect with our cats meets their needs, even if it’s just for thirty minutes,” said Kristin.

Kristin goes so far as to say that some customers reported significant improvements in their mental health after visiting the Alley Cat Café. “Multiple people would thank us for the effects on their emotional health and said that us being here has kept them from self-harm and literally saved their lives,” Kristin said.

Families who have adopted cats from the café also report benefits. One family adopted a cat for a 5-year-old girl who was having trouble making friends. “She was able to blossom as a person and improved her social skills with her peers,” Kristen said. The café also runs a cat foster program where people can take a cat home for a limited period of three months, which Kristen says has been popular with law and engineering students.

Alley Cat Café has proved a success with young and old. In a Facebook comment in November @IthacaAlleyCat, Lyn Stone wrote: “I love what you do! I’m 82 years old and don’t travel much but my granddaughter is coming in from Colorado in early December and I can’t wait to bring her to your café.”

—By Amber Raiken

Amber Raiken, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing, with a Creative Writing Concentration, and minoring in Education Studies. She is a writer and the social media director for IC Distinct Magazine, a student-run culture and fashion publication.

Photos courtesy Alley Cat Café