“Be the One”: Caring Connections in Tompkins County

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. To promote the occasion in 2018, members of the Collaborative Solutions Network (CSN), a broad association supporting family mental health throughout Tompkins County, came up with a campaign. They called it “Be the One,” and the goal was “to spread the belief that everyone needs a safe, secure and nurturing relationship.”

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Lansing Middle School students join the “Be the One” movement

Thanks to community enthusiasm, “Be the One” turned out to be much more than a fleeting slogan. More than 100 people representing some 30 organizations came together at The Space @ GreenStar on December 10 to formally re-launch “Be the One” as an ongoing public wellness project to promote supportive relationships. The New York State Office of Mental Health provided funding, and Mayor Svante Myrick issued a proclamation declaring 2019 “Be the One Year in the City of Ithaca.” Ithaca Voice, Ithaca Times, and The Lansing Star have featured the campaign in their news reports.

Students throughout the county are wearing “Be the One” T-shirts and hoodies, and matching motivational silicone wristbands, and sharing “Be the One” stories in classroom discussions. “Be the One” has a website with information explaining the campaign and toolkits and downloadable posters for bringing it to schools and community groups, and an active Facebook page and Twitter account sharing updates about “Be the One,” news about community wellness events, and inspirational stories from the world’s headlines. There’s even a “Be the One” song, which goes in part:

Imagine what this world could be

If kindness led each thought and deed

Building our communities

In peace and love and harmony.

In a time of rising anxiety and depression, “Be the One” has resonated with its message that safe, stable, and nurturing relationships, based on feeling cared for and connected to other people, build resilience in individuals and communities. Tompkins County has been rocked by three teen suicides in the past year. “Stress can get in the way of letting relationships happen,” Jaydn McCune, a program director at Racker and coordinator of CSN, said in an interview with The Sophie Fund. “But when we have someone to relate to, we can then gain a sense of lightness and possibility.”

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Lansing Central School District decoration

Superintendent Chris Pettograsso has overseen an enthusiastic rollout of “Be the One” in the Lansing Central School District. In late January, two campaign volunteers held sessions helping Lansing students share how they and their teachers could “Be the One.” In mid-March, Lansing Middle School students ran a program to introduce “Be the One” to fifth graders. On March 26, Lansing held a special session to encourage teachers and staff to embrace the “Be the One” ethos and improve empathy and support for students.

“Students have gained much more self-awareness of who really care for them and how they can care for others, and they have been very open to talking to their teachers about that,” Pettograsso told The Sophie Fund. On March 23, a “Be the One Lansing Team” took part in the 6th Annual Ithaca Polar Plunge at Taughannock Falls State Park Beach to support the Special Olympics.

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Lansing Middle School students sharing the “Be the One” campaign with 5th graders

Liz Klohmann, director of the Ithaca Youth Bureau and a member of the campaign planning committee, said the organizers are developing a common curriculum “that can be used by teachers and youth directors all throughout the Tompkins County community.” The campaign encourages schools to introduce “Be the One” in health class, invite students to write stories about their own “Be the One” experiences for English class, create “Be the One” awards, and create community outreach projects around the campaign theme.

Community members have begun posting experiences about their “Ones” on the “Be the One” website—about inspirational teachers, friends, an family members. An anonymously posted story recounted the relationship between a teacher and her elementary school teacher and their re-connection decades later.

“As a fourth grader I’d been happy and alive. Not so as an adult— I felt boxed-in and very, very sad. Mrs. N and I got into a pattern of visiting every week. I could tell her anything. Sometimes we sat and said very little. At one point she said to me, ‘I’m not worried about you, B. You have such vast inner resources.’ That was lifeline!”

McCune tells a story of how “Be the One” helped a teacher change course in the Dryden Central School District. The teacher was complaining to a colleague about a fourth-grader who was driving her up the wall with misbehavior in her classroom all day. She then noticed another teacher wearing a “Be the One” bracelet. “She stopped and realized that she needed to ‘be the one’ for her student,” McCune said. “The teacher realized that her student was having trouble, and that she wanted to do her best to help him.”

—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.

Photo credits: Courtesy of the Lansing Central School District